Book Interview: The Camera Lies – Acting For Hitchcock

TCL - Cover

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Release Date: September 01, 2020

A Conversation with Dan Callahan

“Even when we know everything about a movie down to its shooting schedule and budget and technical tricks, we believe at some level that the magic trick is real. And of course nothing delighted Hitchcock more than explaining his tricks with the camera, his devices to make it lie. He wanted us to know it all and then still fall for it, and fall in love. Watch his films again, fall in love again, and know that we are falling in love with a mirage, with a lie.” –Dan Callahan (The Camera Lies, 2020)

Alfred Hitchcock is said to have once remarked, “Actors are cattle,” a line that has stuck in the public consciousness ever since. For Hitchcock, acting was a matter of contrast and counterpoint, valuing subtlety and understatement over flashiness. He felt that the camera was duplicitous and directed actors to look and act conversely. In The Camera Lies, author Dan Callahan spotlights the many nuances of Hitchcock’s direction throughout his career. The text spans the director’s entire oeuvre—from The Pleasure Garden to Family Plot—as Callahan examines the spectrum of treatment and direction Hitchcock provided his actors. Behind Hitchcock’s outward indifference to his players was a sophisticated acting theorist who often drew out great performances. 

Dan Callahan is the author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle WomanVanessa: The Life of Vanessa RedgraveThe Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960, and The Art of American Screen Acting, 1960 to Today. He has written about film for Sight & SoundFilm CommentNylonThe Village Voice, and many other publications. Alfred Hitchcock Master is honored to have had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Callahan about The Camera Lies, and we would like to share this conversation with our readers:

AHM: How did you become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work?

DC: When I was eight years old, Channel 9 in Chicago ran a weeklong festival of Hitchcock movies, and I was very taken with them. I kept talking about them, and so my mother bought me a book called The Films of Alfred Hitchcock by Patrick Humphries. This was around the time when Blockbuster Video opened, and when my mother took me there, they had a Hitchcock section. And so I rented tapes and kept renting them. My lifelong interest in cinema began with Hitchcock.

AHM: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock film?

DC: I would have to say Notorious (1946) because that’s the one I really love the most. When I was writing my book, I actually watched Notorious three times in a row in a single day. It’s like I wanted to live in that movie. I think it’s the best because it is the most romantic, the most painful, and it makes me believe in the possibility of two damaged people reaching out to each other and finally healing each other. That’s the large dream, and Hitchcock is very invested in that dream.

AHM: How did you come upon the idea for a book that focuses on the acting in Hitchcock’s films?

DC: James Bell, my editor at Sight & Sound, asked me to contribute an article on acting in Hitchcock films for a BFI booklet, and that got me thinking about it as a book idea. I had always wanted to do a Hitchcock book, but I wasn’t sure I ever would because there have been so many. I felt like this would be a fresh approach.

AHM: Why do you think Hitchcock’s work has endured for so long, and what makes it so ripe for further study?

DC: Because it is so open to interpretation. You cannot define any of these movies or pigeonhole them. They are as good as they are because they aren’t fixed. They shift every time you see them. I think there will always be room for valid re-interpretation as long as it isn’t reductive.

AHM: How was Hitchcock’s approach to screen acting different from that of other directors?

DC: His approach was extremely technical. He knew exactly how he wanted a face to look on screen and the expression he wanted from the actor. He wasn’t interested in discussing motivation, but he could be very helpful. Hitchcock once told Louise Lorimer—who was playing Strutt’s wife in Marnie (1964)—to smile as if she “had a mouth full of broken china.” He just needed to know you were serious about his films. He wasn’t happy with stage actors in the 1930s like Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, and Michael Redgrave because they weren’t taking his work seriously enough. By the time he made Psycho (1960), Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins were very serious and enthusiastic about their roles, and so he worked with them. He even sat near Leigh during the car scenes and read the voices her character Marion is hearing in her head.

AHM: Which actor (or actors) do you think best suited Hitchcock’s particular style, and why were these talents a better fit for his films than others?

DC: Hitchcock said the best actor for him was one who “could do nothing well,” and this isn’t as easy as it sounds. His ideal in that regard was the stage actor Gerald du Maurier, the father of Daphne, who wrote Rebecca (1940). From my perspective, the best Hitchcock actors are the ones who can hit notes of pure ambiguity with their faces, like Peter Lorre in the first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Judith Anderson in Rebecca…many different thoughts and emotions and qualities going on at once beneath a kind of mask. Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958) is maybe the ultimate for that kind of acting, which is allied to the mystery of human behavior. Casting was also key. Robert Walker is as brilliant as he is in Strangers on a Train (1951) partly because he had always played vulnerable male ingénues before that, and so his Bruno Antony comes as a real shock.

AHM: I really enjoyed the chapter on The Pleasure Garden. Of all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, this is the one that I have seen the least (with the obvious exception of The Mountain Eagle). I’ve only seen it twice, and the book made me want to revisit the film. Do you feel like Hitchcock’s approach was already developed when he started directing movies, or would his methods evolve throughout the decades?

DC: I think that Hitchcock was very nervous with actors when he first started out. He sometimes wasn’t too sure how to handle them. For instance, he was very timid with Virginia Valli because she was a star imported from America. By the mid-1930s, he knew what he wanted from actors and gave several interviews where he was extremely articulate on the subject of acting for the camera and what it entailed.

AHM: How did his directorial approach change once he began working with bigger stars in Hollywood?  …or did it change?

DC: He was already working with stars during his British period, like Sylvia Sidney, who was brought over to England for Sabotage (1936). I think everything got easier for him in America because the actors were both freer and more serious. In England, he was working with a lot of overly genteel actors who often didn’t take their own careers too seriously and retired early. Whereas in America he began working with all-in performers like Carole Lombard and Tallulah Bankhead. I think the only problem he had was sometimes not getting the stars he wanted. He wanted Gary Cooper for several projects but never managed to get him.

AHM: Was his approach different on the projects that were produced by Selznick?

DC: He lacked control under Selznick. For instance, I don’t know if he would have cast Joan Fontaine in Rebecca if Selznick hadn’t pushed for her because several of Hitchcock’s colleagues were against her. Selznick was a fetishist about hair and make-up and things like eyebrows, and this went even beyond Hitchcock’s own interest in those surface things (which was considerable).

AHM: As you mention in your book, Hitchcock believed that he made mistakes with Secret Agent and Sabotage. I agree that Secret Agent is a flawed film, but I completely disagree with him about Sabotage. The trouble with Hitchcock is that he had a tendency to adopt opinions that were based on a film’s critical reception upon its release. This has hindered contemporary reappraisal of his underappreciated efforts. It is my personal belief that Sabotage is one of the director’s strongest British efforts. Vertigo was also dismissed upon initial release, and it is now considered one of his best efforts. Which of his underrated efforts would you most like to see given a Vertigo-style reappraisal?

DC: I love Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) and make a strong case for it in my book, so that’s the one I would pick for some reappraisal.

AHM: In the book’s eighth chapter, you write that Young and Innocent is “well below par, and this is what makes it the weakest film in this resurgent period in Hitchcock’s career.” I was wondering whether this means that you prefer Jamaica Inn to this film.

DC: I would say that I do because there are a lot of interesting elements in Jamaica Inn, even though it doesn’t work as a whole. The female protagonist (Maureen O’Hara) is very lively and active, and Emlyn Williams’s pansexual character is fascinating.

AHM: I must say that I was thrilled to notice an obvious appreciation for The Wrong Man in the pages discussing that film. It deserves more attention and affection from scholars.

DC: I’ve been promoting my book on Facebook, and when I was discussing this film I said that if I were asked what I thought Hitchcock’s greatest film was, I would be tempted to say The Wrong Man. I do not think there is any stronger movie in his filmography. It’s an achievement on a very high level, concentrated and without flaw.

AHM: Hitchcock’s late career is often considered something of a creative decline, but I have always considered this the result of various changes in his creative life. For one thing, he was under contract to Universal. The studio nixed several projects that he was passionate about and forced him to make spy thrillers. Both Torn Curtain and Topaz were made to satisfy the studio suits. He also lost his cinematographer (Robert Burks) and editor (George Tomasini) to death during this period. Finally, the star system was changing. Film acting was an evolving art, and the new crop of actors didn’t quite suit his particular style.

Am I making excuses for my favorite filmmaker, or do you agree that these changes resulted in a decrease in the quality of his films? Why didn’t the actors from this period suit Hitchcock’s directorial approach to screen acting?

DC: Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were disastrous for him in Torn Curtain, but they happened to be the biggest stars at that particular moment. I do think, as you say, that the decline in his work is in large part because Universal didn’t want him to make the films he wanted to make and wanted these Cold War thrillers instead. But there were actors he wanted to work with, like Julie Christie, who might have done well in his films, though she might have been too edgy. I wish he could have worked with Catherine Deneuve. She would have been an ideal heroine for him as she is beautiful, hyper-controlled, and perverse. But he did have a problem finding men to equal Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. There was talk of Al Pacino for Family Plot (1976), but I can’t really imagine that working very well. The heightened stars of that classic Hollywood period were gone, and Hitchcock needed them.

Interview by: Devon Powell

4K UHD Blu-ray Review: The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Release Date: September 08, 2020

Region —

4K UHD: Region Free

BLU-RAY: Region A

Length —

Rear Window: 01:52:27

Vertigo: 02:08:27

Psycho (Original Theatrical Version): 01:49:04

Psycho (Censored Re-release Version): 01:48:51

The Birds: 01:59:31

Video —

4K UHD: 2160P (HEVC, H.265)

BLU-RAY (Rear Window + Psycho + The Birds): 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

BLU-RAY (Vertigo): 1080P (VC-1)

Audio (4K UHD) —

Rear Window:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French European DTS Digital Audio

Vertigo:

English DTS X

2.0 Mono English Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French (European) DTS Digital Audio

Psycho:

English DTS X

2.0 Mono English DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French (European) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

The Birds:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French (European) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Japanese DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Portuguese (Brazilian) DTS Digital Audio

Audio (BLU-RAY) —

Rear Window:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 Mono French DTS Audio

Vertigo:

5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono English DTS Audio

2.0 Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 French DTS Audio

Psycho:

English DTS X

7.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 Mono French DTS Audio

The Birds:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 Mono French DTS Audio

Subtitles —

Rear Window: English SDH, Spanish, French

Vertigo: English SDH, Spanish, French

Psycho: English SDH, Spanish, French

The Birds: English SDH, Spanish, French (The 4K UHD also includes Japanese and Portuguese subtitles.)

Ratio —

Rear Window: 1.66:1

Vertigo: 1.85:1

Psycho: 1.85:1

The Birds: 1.85:1

Bitrate —

Rear Window (4K UHD): 97.00 Mbps

Rear Window (BLU-RAY): 31.99 Mbps

Vertigo (4K UHD): 90.00 Mbps

Vertigo (BLU-RAY): 29.90 Mbps

Psycho (4K UHD): 60.00 Mbps

Psycho (BLU-RAY): 24.43 Mbps

The Birds (4K UHD): 68.00 Mbps

The Birds (BLU-RAY): 29.37 Mbps

Notes: This is the 4K UHD debut for these four titles. The included Blu-ray discs for Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds are the same discs that have been available both individually and in previous boxed sets since 2012. These titles do not include new transfers. However, the included Blu-ray edition of Psycho is a new transfer and includes the original theatrical cut of the film. The package also includes digital copies of all four titles.

Alfred Hitchcock Master is pleased to present four exclusive new guest articles in celebration of Universal’s The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection. Each of these articles discuss one of the four films included in this new 4K UHD collection:

Rear Window: In the Heat of the Night

Exclusive Guest Article By: Robert Jones

Another Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Exclusive Guest Article By: Dan Auiler

Psycho Consideration

Exclusive Guest Article By: Ken Mogg

Hitchcock’s The Birds Is Our Modern Day Pandemic

Exclusive Guest Article By: Tony Lee Moral

The Presentation:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s eight-disc set is given a rather attractive (but undeniably kitschy) book-style presentation with a pair of pages for each film that includes folders for the 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs. Those who own one of the many other Hitchcock Blu-ray sets that Universal has released throughout the years will know what to expect here.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the packaging becomes a deal breaker for some people. This is a design that seems special on the surface but actually provides the consumer with less value than if each film had been provided with a sturdy 2-disc 4K UHD case. Such an approach would offer adequate protection for each of the discs. The folder-style compartments in these Hitchcock sets don’t protect the discs at all. In fact, they very often cause scratches. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the compartments are extremely tight. It is a serious struggle to remove the discs without damaging either the packaging or the disc itself. Fans will have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to remove a disc without scratching it every single time they wish to watch one of these films. What good is attractive packaging if isn’t user friendly?

Fans might wish to invest in individual disc envelopes or plastic disc sleeves. This would allow them to place the eight discs into the sleeves and simply pull the sleeves out of the book’s folder-compartments with less risk of scratching or smudging them.

It is time for Universal to stop packaging their discs in this manner. This is a major issue with what would have otherwise been a near-perfect release.

Rear Window

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

Rear Window wasn’t the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to be projected in the ‘widescreen’ format, but it was his first film to be projected wide in every theatre. The recommended ratio was 1.66:1, and Universal has retained this theatrical ratio for this 4K UHD release. (The same can be said about their Blu-ray transfer of the film.)

This 2160p transfer of Rear Window doesn’t merely offer an improvement in resolution. It seems to be a more accurate rendering of the film’s source elements. The Blu-ray was a fine transfer for that particular format, but there were moments that seemed as if the image had been brightened. This new UHD image prefers to allow the film’s darker scenes to remain dark. Shadows appear to be deeper and contrast is richer here. Colors also seem healthier here, much more stable, and more realistic than they appeared on the Blu-ray disc. HDR really seems to add subtle improvements in this area. The disc encode hasn’t introduced any noticeable anomalies either. Of course, it is important to remember that all of these areas have been judged with the film’s age in mind. It would be ridiculous to expect the film to look like a recent blockbuster (and this is a good thing in certain respects). However, none of the age related blemishes become problematic or at all distracting.

BLU-RAY: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal has recycled their old 2014 Blu-ray disc for this release, and our opinions about the transfer remain the same:

Clarity and detail are both vastly improved over the DVD releases of the film. Audiences can now spy on the neighbors across the courtyard and see details that they have never previously seen. The transfer showcases a layer of grain that would have been evident in the source materials, and DNR seems to have been used more responsibly here than might have been the case. Instances of dirt and film damage are rare and never distracting. While a few shots appear less clear than the majority of the film, one assumes that this is an issue with the source and not the transfer. Color is well rendered for the most part (although there are a few moments of inconsistency). This is one of the better Blu-ray transfers of a Hitchcock film offered by Universal.

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal seems to recycle their old 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio that featured on the earlier Blu-ray, but that was always a lovely mix and needs no upgrade here. Alfred Hitchcock used sound dramatically and with particular creative flair in Rear Window, and it seems more important that they include a faithful lossless reproduction of the film’s original mix than to offer a ham-fisted 5.1 re-mix. Sometimes those re-mixes are merely bumbled counterfeits of a soundtrack that wasn’t broken in the first place.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The same two-channel Mono DTS-HD Master Audio mix appears on the included Blu-ray disc, and this should satisfy even the most discriminating listeners. Dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout, and the amazing ambiance of the neighborhood has never sounded better on a home video format. This was a terrific sound transfer in 2014, and it remains a solid track today.

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Commentary with John Fawell

John Fawell is the author of a wonderful book entitled “Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film.” While some may complain that his commentary track is a bit dry, he does offer a significant amount of interesting analysis that is peppered with production details. Most fans of the film will enjoy the commentary a great deal, and it is certainly a welcome addition to the disc.

Rear Window Ethics – (55:10)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary about the making of Rear Window examines the production of this wonderful classic before discussing the film’s restoration. It is one of the best supplements on a disc that is full of wonderful supplements.

A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes – (13:10)

John Michael Hayes discusses how he came to work on the screenplay for Rear Window and shares his memories of working with Alfred Hitchcock. This is a rather detailed program that offers a lot more information than one might expect from a thirteen minute featurette. One may want to watch this featurette before watching Rear Window Ethics.

Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock – (23:31)

Hitchcock was such a visual genius that his brilliant use of sound often goes unnoticed. This short documentary discusses the director’s use of sound. This is perhaps not as comprehensive as one might like, but it is an interesting and thoughtful look at an element of Hitchcock’s work that is too often ignored.

Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of the Master – (25:12)

Alfred Hitchcock’s work has influenced many filmmakers. In this featurette, several of these filmmakers discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s films and his technique. While this isn’t the disc’s best supplement, it is certainly nice to have it included here.

Masters of Cinema – (33:39)

This 1972 program is an incredible addition to an already wonderful disc. We are given two interesting interviews with the master himself (one featuring Pia Lindstrom and another featuring William Everson). Certain sections of the program (including introductions and film clips) are omitted. A more complete version of this program is included on Criterion’s edition of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The picture quality on the Criterion release is also slightly superior.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (16:15)

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but these interview excerpts should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films. The interview is illustrated by film clips, promotional photos, and artwork from the film.

Theatrical Trailer

James Stewart addresses the audience and discusses his neighbors. This is different than many vintage trailers, but it does include quite a bit of footage from the actual film. Fans of Rear Window should be delighted to have it included here.

Re-Release Trailer (Narrated by James Stewart)

This re-release trailer features narration from James Stewart about the re-release of VertigoThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThe Trouble with HarryRope, and Rear Window. It is surprisingly interesting but also rather dated.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This is a gallery of production stills, advertisements, and posters that were used to promote Rear Window.

Vertigo

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s new 2160p transfer of Vertigo is without question this set’s most beautiful transfer in this set. It really stands apart from the other titles away in many regards. This is probably because of the 70mm restoration source used for this particular transfer. The film was shot in Vistavision, and this gave the film a significant increase in resolution from a typical 35mm image. The image is so overwhelmingly impressive to these eyes that it is difficult to know where to start. Robert Burks’s brilliant color cinematography is brought to dazzling life here as they show an amazing amount of vibrancy that never feels artificial. Blacks are deeper with richer shadow depth. The Blu-ray seems to have been brightened in comparison with this darker transfer, but this seems more accurate when one watches the film in motion. Fans will also notice an obvious increase in sharpness, clarity, and fine detail throughout the duration of the movie. Of course, grain is handled remarkably here as it is very fine but always looks filmic.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Again, this Blu-ray disc is the same one that has been available for years. The 1080p transfer is impressive but not perfect. Detail is wonderful and reveals textures and lines that weren’t as clearly defined on previous home video release formats. Clarity is wonderful with only occasional digressions into slight softness. There is a fine layer of film grain, but this is a good thing. There aren’t any digital anomalies to annoy the viewer. Colors are quite wonderfully rendered (with only a few minor exceptions), and the picture exhibits appropriate contrast. There are moments when blacks feel slightly faded, but this never becomes a distraction. Any complaints one might have tend to be overwhelmed by the transfer’s more positive attributes.

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

It was interesting to discover that the soundtrack has been given an upgrade here as Universal offers fans a DTS X Master Audio mix instead of the lossless 5.1 presentation that graced the 2014 Blu-ray edition of this film. The differences are especially evident in Bernard Herrmann’s terrific score, and one must admit that the differences are quite welcome. It is certainly an immersive mix that seems to have been created with loving care as each element is well prioritized.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Their 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also a winner on every level. This track was certainly the highlight of Universals Blu-ray catalogue of Hitchcock films. This mix was rather controversial upon the release of the film’s wonderful restoration in 1996. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz were forced to redo much of the soundtrack (based upon Alfred Hitchcock’s meticulous notes). Purists were quite upset, but this is a marvelous job. Purists should be pleased to find that Universal has also included the film’s original mono track. The complaint here might be that it is not lossless. I suppose that one cannot have everything. It is certainly wonderful to see it included here in some form.

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

If Universal had included the wonderful restoration commentary with Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, this would be a near-perfect collection of supplements.

Feature Length Commentary by William Friedkin

One would probably rather have the Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz commentary included on the disc instead of this one. The track included various Vertigo participants (including Samuel Taylor) and was quite interesting. Friedkin offers an interesting enough track, but it is mostly a blow-by-blow of what is happening onscreen. One wonders why they asked him to provide a track for the film in the first place. He has made a few wonderful films, but he isn’t an expert on Vertigo. This reviewer would have preferred a commentary by Dan Auiler (who quite literally wrote the book on the subject).

Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece – (29:19)

This ‘original’ American Movie Classic documentary (produced when AMC actually aired classic movies) is narrated by Roddy McDowall and features a number of interviews with Vertigo participants (including Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Herbert Coleman, and Patricia Hitchcock, and others). A significant portion of the documentary is dedicated to the wonderful 1996 restoration. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz discuss (in reasonably comprehensive detail) what was involved in restoring this great classic.

It is a wonderful documentary that is somewhat different to the documentaries on most of Universal’s Hitchcock releases (which were directed by Laurent Bouzereau). Some of the other documentaries were slightly more comprehensive while others weren’t. It is very nice to see this documentary included here. It is one of the two best supplements on this disc.

Partners in Crime: Hitchcock’s Collaborators – (54:49)

This documentary has four chapters:

Saul Bass: Title Champ

Edith Head: Dressing the Master’s Movies

Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock’s Maestro

Alma: The Master’s Muse

Each of these chapters is informative and entertaining, and they are all likely to increase the viewer’s appreciation of Vertigo and the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography.

Foreign Censorship Ending – (02:09)

This ending that was tagged on to the film for its foreign release and was probably never intended to be the film’s proper ending (though it was included in the shooting script). It is incredibly interesting and one of the most welcome additions to the disc.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (14:17)

It is unacceptable at this point not to include pertinent excerpts from Hitchcock’s legendary book length interview with François Truffaut. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films, and this portion of their interview isn’t an exception.

100 Years of Universal Lew Wasserman Era – (09:00)

This featurette about Universal Studios during Lew Wasserman’s reign is an appropriate extra for a Hitchcock film (and even includes a clip of Alfred Hitchcock promoting the Universal tour). It certainly isn’t the best supplement here, but it is entertaining and informative enough to earn its place in this collection of supplements.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (02:30)

This ‘original’ theatrical trailer was created with the intention of making the audience understand the meaning of the film’s title while also exploiting the more sensational aspects of the film. It is an interesting artifact and fans should be grateful to have it included here.

Restoration Theatrical Trailer – (01:23)

The 1996 restoration re-release trailer marks an important moment in the film’s history as few classic films are given such a well-publicized re-release (or such a meticulous and painstaking restoration).

The Vertigo Archives

The Vertigo Archives is essentially am extensive photo gallery that includes production photographs, stills, posters, advertisements, and production design drawings. Many of these are quite interesting.

Psycho

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The original 2010 Blu-ray transfer of Psycho (and all of Universal’s subsequent Blu-ray releases up until now) included a transfer that has been criticized for being an overly processed representation of the film. There was an obvious overuse of DNR applied to the image in an effort to “manage” the film’s grain, contrast was pushed a bit too far, and it appears that artificial digital sharpening had also been applied. Having said this, the film still managed to look outstanding.

It is wonderful to report that this new transfer corrects those issues and looks considerably more filmic. In fact, any issues that one might find with this particular transfer seem to represent the source. The improvements here go beyond the perimeters of the added resolution that this format allows. Revelatory improvements in fine detail are certainly evident, gradients see a significant if subtle improvement due to the HDR capabilities of the format, textures aren’t as waxy here, blacks are healthier here (it appears that the 2010 transfer had been brightened to “enhance” the image), and clarity is also greatly improved. Universal’s impeccable encoding has ensured that fans can enjoy this remarkable new upgrade without ant distracting artifacts, although sensitive viewers man notice some aliasing during certain scenes. Age related film damage is also occasionally evident but never blatant or distracting.

The “uncut” theatrical version and the re-release cut of the film are seamlessly branched, so there isn’t any different in the quality of the two included versions if the film.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc includes a 1080p transfer of the same master used for the 4K UHD disc, so much of what was written about that disc also applies to this one. However, we might add that some fans may fault this disc for not being as sharp as the earlier Blu-ray release, but it is worth repeating that the reason for this is that it hasn’t been artificially sharpened and the contrast hasn’t been pushed nearly as far here. This is a much more organic representation of the film’s source.

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

Psycho has been given yet another soundtrack upgrade for this release, but the DTS X transfer isn’t an overwhelming overhaul of the 5.1 TrueHD mix that appeared on the original Blu-ray edition. Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score is allowed to really come to life here, and the mix is truly immersive when his music takes the stage. Other elements are also nicely handled, and this extends to the sounds that breathe life into the quieter moments of the famous shower sequence. Dialogue is always clear and well prioritized throughout the film, so there won’t be any complaints regarding this particular element.

Unfortunately, we feel that Universal has erroneously touted that the disc includes the film’s original mono mix in the DTS Digital Audio format. We were initially disappointed that this track wasn’t included in lossless form, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway since the track isn’t even the film’s original mono but the DTS X track folded down into a mono track.

I’ll admit that the surround mix isn’t a bad one, but it isn’t perfectly faithful to the original soundtrack either. New sounds have been added to the mix, and this might have been more acceptable if it was offered as an option in addition to the original mix in high definition.

BLU-RAY: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The included Blu-ray features the same DTS X audio and a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio reworking of that mix. Our above review applies to this disc as well, but the fake mono option isn’t included here.

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal has included all of the excellent supplements that graced their earlier Blu-ray releases of Psycho. Some might complain that the disc lacks any new supplements, and we will agree that a commentary or featurette about the original theatrical cut would have added value and interest to this important release. However, this is still an incredibly rich supplemental package.

Audio Commentary with Stephen Rebello

Stephen Rebello is known for writing the book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” His commentary is informative and focuses on the film’s production. He manages to relay a wealth of information in an engaging and entertaining manner. There is a lot to love about this commentary.

Alfred Hitchcock Master had a brief exchange with Rebello about this particular release, and he seemed slightly disappointed that Universal didn’t commission a new track that addresses the “uncut” theatrical version of Psycho:

“I spoke at length with Universal reps when they contacted me several times about the original print version of Psycho. They’re recycling my old recorded commentary on the new 4K (when they should have asked me to do a new recording specifically on the hows-and-whys of the original version and subsequent cuts).”Stephen Rebello

The Making of Psycho– (01:34:06)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary is probably one of the most comprehensive and well-made documentaries on the making of a single Hitchcock film that I have ever seen. It covers every aspect of production in great detail. It might have been better if archival footage of Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, and Vera Miles were included. I know that relevant footage is available. Oddly, the documentary is so enthralling that the absence of these key contributors goes unnoticed until it is over. They are certainly discussed at great length. The documentary is far from a mere fluff piece. It is the best supplemental feature in this package.

Newsreel Footage: The Release of ‘Psycho– (07:45)

This is a vintage promotional newsreel revealing Hitchcock’s unique policies surrounding the film’s release. It is surprisingly entertaining. Hitchcock fans will love it.

In the Master’s Shadow – Hitchcock’s Legacy – (25:27)

Contemporary filmmakers discuss Hitchcock’s influence and why his movies continue to thrill audiences. This is actually much better than it sounds because we see clips from contemporary films that illustrate the director’s profound influence on contemporary cinema.

Psycho Sound – (09:58)

This brief featurette is new to the Blu-ray disc and looks at the re-mastering process used to create a surround mix from the original mono elements. It is interesting but this is of less interest than the supplements about the film’s production. It is also worth noting that it is not discussing the mix that is included on this disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (06:36)

Theatrical trailers are rarely this entertaining. Instead of featuring footage from the actual film, Alfred Hitchcock gives a fabulously witty tour of the iconic set. He cryptically teases the audience with plot details but reveals only enough information to make the audience curious. It is really quite delightful.

Re-Release Trailers – (01:51)

These re-release trailers are less interesting than the original theatrical trailer, but they are certainly worth seeing.

The Shower Scene (with and without music) – (02:31)

This feature gives viewers the opportunity to view the famous shower scene with and without Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. It is actually surprising how differently the scene plays. It actually works quite well without music, but the effect is completely different. The scene is less startling and more devastating without the music. The sounds of the knife tearing through flesh combine with the Marion’s screams and whimpers to make the moment more intimate and tragic when they are played against silence. The horror becomes more personal. There is no doubt that the score contributed to the scene’s success, but for reasons that I would have never guessed. One understands Hitchcock’s reasoning for suggesting that the scene not have music. I realize that this isn’t the line that critics and scholars have sold us. Other people will probably have different reactions than mine, but this supplement will remain interesting for almost everyone.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (15:21)

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but these excerpts remain interesting regardless. The audio clips are presented over clips from the film, which increases one’s enjoyment.

The Psycho Archives:

This is merely a collection of photo galleries related to the production and marketing of Psycho. The way that it is listed on the disc is rather misleading as it implies that this is a separate feature.

The Shower Scene Storyboards

Posters & Psycho Ads

Lobby Cards

Behind-The-Scenes Photographs

It is worth mentioning that all of these images are presented in standard definition.

The Birds

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

This was always going to be the weakest image transfer in this set. The Birds has always been a troublesome title to judge in terms of picture quality. The source materials are inevitably marred to some extent by the special effects. Some shots are naturally second, third, and even fourth generation images. Hedren’s close-ups are filtered so that they present her in the best possible light (a practice that was not at all uncommon in those days). Obviously, these images will not be as immaculate as one expects from most 4K UHD transfers. One really shouldn’t hold this against the transfer as it does offer an obvious upgrade. We see that the HDR has resulted in better color intensity and clarity. Depth sees a notable improvement over the Blu-ray. The image is noticeably more textured, and the film’s natural layer of grain is well managed here.

BLU-RAY: 3 of 5 MacGuffins

Here we have another repurposed 2014 Blu-ray disc, and the transfer is marred by the same production realities that held the new 4K UHD transfer back. The image is a bit softer than one expects in high definition due to the production photography. Colors seem to be accurately rendered, and black levels are often deep and lovely. Some shots do exhibit a bit of unattractive noise, but these incidents do not represent the presentation in its entirety. There has also been a bit of digital tampering, and there is an occasional artifact. This is never distracting, but it is somewhat unfortunate. This transfer might not be great, but it is certainly a vast improvement over previous DVD editions.

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal also recycles their old 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio that featured on the 2014 Blu-ray, but that mix was always a solid representation of the film’s original sound mix. Alfred Hitchcock’s soundtrack for The Birds was designed with meticulous care, and it is especially important to represent that original mix. All elements are well prioritized, dialogue is intelligible, and bird effects are full and have an aggression that one might expect in a more recent film (even if they aren’t presented in a contemporary surround mix).

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc utilizes the same DTS-HD Master Audio that is featured on the 4K UHD disc.

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

All About The Birds – (01:19:49)

Laurent Bouzereau’s feature-length documentary about the making of The Birds is incredibly comprehensive. It covers every aspect of production in explicit detail. Patricia Hitchcock, ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Rod Taylor, Veronica Cartwright, Evan Hunter, Ray Berwick, Robert Boyle, Hilton Green, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Harold Michelson, Howard Smit, Steven C. Smith, and Robin Wood all share memories and provide their expertise about the film. The viewer will also hear Alfred Hitchcock discuss the film’s ending with Peter Bogdanovich. This documentary is second only to Bouzereau’s similar program about Psycho (and it is a very close second).

The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie – (14:23)

This featurette is exclusive to the Blu-ray of The Birds, and is essentially an analysis of the film’s place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. The piece makes the argument that The Birds is the master’s “monster movie.” It is nice to have it included here, but it isn’t one of the discs better supplements.

‘Tippi’ Hedren’s Screen Test – (09:57)

This footage from ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s screen test (featuring Martin Balsam) is an absolute gem. Alfred Hitchcock fans should find this footage to be absolutely essential and will be thrilled to have it in their collection.

Suspense Story: National Press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel) – (01:54)

This newsreel includes a humorous speech that Alfred Hitchcock gave for the National Press Club. It is both interesting and enjoyable.

The Birds is Coming (Universal International Newsreel) – (01:17)

This newsreel features footage that highlights pigeon races that publicized The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock and ‘Tippi’ Hedren witness the event.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (13:58)

These excerpts from Truffaut’s famous interview with Hitchcock allow fans to hear the director discuss The Birds.

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics – (09:13)

This featurette is essentially a commercial for the Universal catalog and discusses the restoration of a few Universal titles (including The Birds). The few nuggets of information that are related to the viewer concern the restoration process.

100 Years of Universal: The Lot – (HD) – (09:26)

This featurette is essentially a fluff piece about the Universal lot, but it does include a few brief moments of interesting footage.

Theatrical Trailer – (05:11)

The theatrical trailer for The Birds is an incredibly creative promotional film featuring Alfred Hitchcock addressing the viewer about the history of man’s relationship with the birds. It is of course done with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. It is truly excellent, and this disc would be incomplete without it.

Deleted Scene

This deleted scene featuring Melanie and Mitch was shot but no longer exists (at least not to anyone’s current knowledge). Therefore, the scene is presented as a sort of slide show with excerpts from the script and images from the scene.

 Original Ending

Since the original ending was never shot, we are given a slide show presentation of script pages and conceptual sketches that illustrate what the ending would have been like.

Storyboards

Audiences are given a slide show comparing various storyboards with images from the film.

Production Photographs

Another slide show of production photos, stills, advertisements, posters, and other images is also included.

Final Words:

The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection includes four of the director’s most beloved titles on the 4K UHD format, and the set would receive an enthusiastic recommendation if it were not for the problematic packaging. Fans who can stand the suspense may wish to wait for these films to be released individually, but some will want to check out these excellent new transfers as soon as possible.

Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ Is Our Modern Day Pandemic

The Birds - One Sheet

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Tony Lee Moral

This article is the final entry in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

The Birds - SS27 (4K UHD-Reduced)

The Birds was made during the pinnacle of Alfred Hitchcock’s career — following the monumental success of Psycho in 1960. Hitchcock felt that he was entering his ‘golden age’ and was brimming with ideas. This was his creative peak, and this would surely be his crowning achievement. It would take almost two years—from 1961 to 1963—to bring The Birds to the screen, and it was set against the tumultuous background of the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s presidency.

Hitchcock knew that suspense grew from the fear of the unknown and allowing the audience to use their imagination. This use of suggestion—and not visually showing the menace during the attack on the Brenner House—was to become an important influence for many directors in their films. As Roger Corman said, “Hitchcock’s importance to me, personally, is exemplified by the way he reveals his monsters. Whether they be birds or a man dressed as his mother, Hitchcock never lets the audience see the entirety of the monster until the end of the film.” This would be most evident in latter monster movies—such as Jaws (1975) and Predator (1987)—where a full sighting of the actual beast is not seen until near the end of the picture. To reveal the monster too early would be cheating the audience and depriving them the pleasure of seeing it in all its glory later.

A clever marketing campaign ignited public interest in the film with theatrical trailers and punchy radio commercials featuring Alfred Hitchcock. “If you have ever eaten a turkey drumstick, caged a canary, or gone duck hunting, The Birds will give you something to think about,” the director said in one radio spot. “If you are the type of person who goes to a bull fight and roots for the bull, you’ll love The Birds.” The film swiftly became known as a precursor to the modern horror movies. It’s also of interest to note that during its production in the summer of 1962, The New Yorker published excerpts from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” which is credited with launching the environmental movement.

TheBirds -SSTrailer

As the Coronavirus pandemic unfolds across the world and we watch various Governments respond to it, we are reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s remarks to Francois Truffaut during the making of The Birds in 1962. Hitchcock said that his film was about complacency, and that ordinary men and women go about their lives regardless that catastrophe can be imminent. The film was conceived during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bel Air Fire, the Missouri Floods, and the overshadowing threat of nuclear war. Hitchcock said he wanted to stir people out of their complacency.

Today, in our volatile and pandemic ridden planet, it’s all too easy to identify with The Birds since violence can erupt in our lives at any moment. We are threatened by viruses, hurricanes, earthquakes, storms, and floods—yet the vast majority of us are oblivious to these dangers. Most of us take nature for granted until we are faced with loss or the eruption of chaos, and this is represented by the birds. Hitchcock’s characters represent those who face up to disaster and reveal their inner strength, and we see how fragile and precious human relationships are.

No more than today does Hitchcock’s remarks about the meaning of The Birds seem more relevant, as countries struggling to control the Coronavirus introduce shutdowns and a variety of social distancing measures. Some countries like South Korea acted quickly, while others such as Spain, the US, and the UK were slower to enforce lockdowns. These countries are now paying the price as the number of positive cases are escalating in Europe and the USA while they contend with the financial effects of a crumbling economy.

Like the mysterious birds that attack Bodega Bay, the Coronavirus seems to have come out of nowhere—reportedly from a wet market in China—and has quickly spread across the globe (facilitated by our predilection for international travel). Suddenly all our lives are affected. We are now caged in our houses and apartments while under government orders to stay at home, businesses are shut down, and capital cities are in lockdown. Outside, there is evidence that nature is reclaiming what we stole from it. Sika Deer have been spotted in Japan’s cities, raccoons appear on an empty beach in Panama, and coyotes are being seen on the streets of San Francisco. These reports suggest that nature is rebalancing itself after decades of being crowded out by an ever increasing human population. Others suggest the pandemic is retribution—as the intermediate host of Coronavirus is the pangolin (the most trafficked mammal in the world).

The Birds - EndWorld (SD)

As in the pivotal scene in The Birds—when the residents of Bodega Bay take shelter inside the Tides restaurant—countries blame each other for starting the virus. America blames China. China blames America. Social distancing bans are ignored, subways and buses are crammed, and the complacent attitude of “nothing bad is really going to happen to me” is all too prevalent in our society. Why does Melanie Daniels go up to the attic for the climatic bird attack? Despite all the warnings and everything she has been through, she still enters the avian filled room. Maybe—like us—she doesn’t think anything bad will happen to her. Complacency must be beaten out of her by the birds, and she narrowly escapes with her life… Just like the Coronavirus has taken its toll on those who think of it as “just a virus” — one notch above the common cold.

The Birds inexplicably attack in waves followed by an eerie retreat. There are predictions that the Coronavirus will suddenly disappear. The world will wait and watch. “It’s the end of the world!” spurts the drunk at the Tides restaurant. The pandemic won’t kill off the human race, but like the fury of the birds, it will hopefully remind us to be more respectful in our attitudes to nature.

The Birds - Final Shot (SD)

***

Tony Lee Moral Books

Tony Lee Moral is the author of “Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie,” “The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds,” and “Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass.” All three of these titles are available on Amazon.com.

www.alfredhitchcockbooks.com

www.tonyleemoralbooks.com

‘Psycho’ Considerations

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Ken Mogg

This article is the third in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

“Sam keeps Norman talking while Lila sneaks into the house to explore …  As we can’t make up our mind whether the danger is coming from in front of her (Mom) or from behind her (Norman) … we yield to a helpless hysteria.” —Raymond Durgnat (Inside Norman Bates, Focus on Hitchcock, 1972)

EXACTLY! RAYMOND DURGNAT’S CLASSIC essay about Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho (spoiler warning: read no further if you haven’t already seen it) shows how well he understood the director’s capacity to outflank his audiences. Here are other examples: About the enthralling sequence of Marion Crane’s long drive with $40,000 stolen from her employer, Durgnat notes her two contrasting encounters. “The cop is saying, ‘I remind you of punishment: turn back!’ the garage hand, ‘I make crime pleasant and easy, go on.'” And again, after motel proprietor Norman Bates has cleaned up the scene of Marion’s murder in her shower by his homicidal Mother and disposed of the body in a nearby swamp, we are torn. Such filial protectiveness! “The spectator’s moral purity,” writes Durgnat, “is being outflanked at both ends—by morbid, pornographic interest, and by a sympathetic pity for charming Norman.”

Durgnat clearly sees how the initial conversation between Norman and the private detective Arbogast works. “In the battle of wits between [them] we sympathize with them both — Marion must be avenged … yet Norman’s motives are [seemingly] selfless …” Even so, Hitchcock has planted a hint of Norman’s more formidable side. Conversing with Marion, Norman leans forward, his eyes blazing angrily, and accuses her, “You mean [put Mother in] an institution, a madhouse?” Already he seems driven to protect his mother, even as next moment he admits, revealingly, that he had considered putting her away. “But,” he adds, “I hate to even think about it.” As critics have said about Psycho and Hitchcock, the director doesn’t cheat — just lets us leap to our wrong conclusions. About how nice Norman is, for example!

Initially, Durgnat isn’t complimentary about Hitchcock’s audience. “In Psycho nothing that isn’t disturbing or tainted ever happens, and to enjoy it (as most people do) is to stand convicted, and consciously convicted, of a lurking nostalgia for evil …” In the end, though, we arrive at “an unsentimental compassion towards insanity.” (The philosopher Schopenhauer claimed that humans are driven by an impersonal, non-rational force—which Psycho surely implies—and advocated an ethics of compassion to countermand it. He termed this ubiquitous force “Will”. Durgnat, for his part, sees Psycho as showing “the brutal Will of destiny”, implicit in Bernard Herrmann’s score and whose personification is the police patrolman, inscrutable behind his dark glasses.1)

At the same time, Herrmann’s score represents subjective dread, both the characters’ (especially Marion’s, on the road) and ours. Dread is fear, or, more specifically, a fear of what one nonetheless desires.2 Marion feels compelled to steal a wad of unmarked $100 bills (whose obnoxious owner had tempted her by remarking, “I never carry more than I can afford to lose”) in order to flee her job and marry boyfriend Sam. Once on the road, the dread starts to beset her. The pounding score alternates with a “yearning” music, for both of which the ubiquitous strings are well-suited.

The Credits

To appreciate how Hitchcock and Herrmann are able to intimate a great deal in a short space—as they do—we need look no further than the credits sequence. It starts with the obligatory Paramount logo shown in a chilling black-and-white image incorporating horizontal lines and total silence. Never has that familiar snow-covered mountain top been more functional!3 A momentary fade to black follows, then a dark grey screen appears. After a beat, Herrmann’s skittering yet pounding music announces itself and the screen is invaded by sets of horizontal black bars which come and go, regularly uncovering white titles underneath, starting with the words “ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S” and then “PSYCHO.” Sometimes the clusters of horizontal bars give way to sets of vertical ones. Meanwhile, the successive titles shatter, and are wiped or seemingly pushed from the screen by the hostile bars. There’s a certain symmetry to all of this, but it’s hard to define — as I’m sure the filmmakers intended. Saul Bass’s description of his work on the titles for Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) comes to mind: the image of a “jagged” arm “expressed the jarring, disjointed existence of the drug addict.” Mutatis mutandis, the Psycho titles anticipate the psychosis of Norman Bates — and, to an extent, of us all. (“We all go a little mad sometimes”, Norman will say.) The blocks of vertical lines resemble city buildings, and at the end of the sequence dissolve to a real cityscape of Phoenix, Arizona.

The black bars will return at the very end of the film (after its final image of the turgid swamp) to obliterate everything. Nihilism anyone?! The question arises of how exactly Psycho manages to exhilarate most viewers. Here’s Durgnat again: “People [who have just seen Psycho] leave the cinema chuckling incredulously, groggy, exhilarated yet hysterical, half-ready to believe that everybody in the world is as mad as Norman.” Hitchcock, with his mastery of subjective cinema in which onscreen events mirror the mind-state of characters and/or viewers (the expressionist Marnie provides a classic example) well understood that none of us knows anything “objectively.” (That was certainly Schopenhauer’s thesis. We can’t comprehend Will, only it’s Representation/s.) Finally, having been put through the wringer by the film, which was an avowed aim of Hitchcock’s, i.e., full audience involvement, and an outcome of his subjective techniques, we heave a sigh of relief that Norman has got what he deserved. Well, it’s ambiguous! But at least we’ve been given a scapegoat!

Early Scenes

As noted, what follows the credits sequence is a view of a city, with the camera gradually descending and slow-zooming into the space between a partially-open window and its sill, then into a darkened hotel room behind it. That image soon lightens, as if our eyes were adjusting to the gloom, and we see that a couple – Sam and Marion – have been making out on a bed. Successive titles have set the scene: “PHOENIX, ARIZONA”, “FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH”, “TWO FORTY-THREE P.M.” Each block of words has slid onto the screen from the side, then off again, just as the black bars did earlier. The fact that the words are all in capitals adds to the block-impression. The precision of date, place, and time is like an apt joke on Hitchcock’s part, no doubt evoking the police procedural Dragnet which had just finished its decade-long run on American TV (1951-1959; revived in 1967). The viewer feels another frisson of excitement to come. The track/zoom beneath the slightly-raised hotel bedroom window in order to show something illicit, i.e., love-making at lunchtime, troubles us not at all! We have paid our admission precisely to experience some vicarious thrills, and here are two Hollywood stars effectively doing our bidding! Carry on, Hitchcock and cast!

Of course, we have arrived too late for actual intimacy. Hitchcock allows us to see just enough necking to stir us; he’ll gratify us with a different excitement later in the film. He was well aware that “suspense” is analogous to sex. Psycho‘s early scenes are effectively about sexual frustration and prelude the images of the mother-dominated Norman spying voyeuristically on Marion. Director Richard Franklin (Psycho II) told me that Hitchcock regretted not being able to imply that Norman was masturbating as he watched Marion take her shower. Note too that there’s a relative “shortage” of women in the supporting cast of Psycho. Certainly, none of them is any match, photographically, for Janet Leigh’s Marion! There’s mousy Caroline in the real estate office where Marion works; there’s Vera Miles as Lila, whom for some reason Hitchcock dressed as dowdily as he could (though he had considered casting her as Madeleine in Vertigo!); and there’s the sheriff’s wife, for whom matters of the bedroom are, at most, to be whispered about.  Interestingly, Psycho‘s several males, excluding Tony Perkins’s Norman, tend to be declamatory, and their virility is not in question. Hitchcock seldom left us uncertain about our allegiances. (Incidentally, I value Sheriff Chambers’s hearty enunciation of “Ar-bo-gast”!) By contrast, Norman is a charming conversationalist, once he gets going! (His opening gambit to Marion, “You eat like a bird!”, is a bit lame — but quite in character, given his boyish disposition!)

Visuals and Screenplay

Just as artfully employed are the film’s visuals. The road scenes, and the Bates Motel, continue the horizontal-lines motif of the credits; the tall buildings of Phoenix, the old house behind the motel, the Fairvale Church with its spire, and the courthouse with its columns, feature vertical designs, again recalling the credits. Marion’s drive to California offers a slice of Americana to go with the reference to “many motels in this area” by the patrolman — shades of Edward Hopper’s 1957 painting “Western Motel”, whose dreary rolling hillside visible through a window is a likely influence.4 Marion’s trip provides a rough parallel to, say, the road scenes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962); pessimistic later films like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1970) and Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) may be seen as likewise drawing on and contributing to such a road genre.

Something I hugely admire is the Psycho screenplay by the young Joseph Stefano.  Himself in psychotherapy at the time (as I remember reading in Stephen Rebello’s richly rewarding Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, 1990), he had a remarkable ear for dialogue and a resourcefulness that quickly earned him Hitchcock’s gratitude. The scene in Sam’s hardware store with the lady buying the pesticide is very clever. The lady reads the label on the can: “They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world …” The idea of mass extermination of “every insect” already sounds excessive, but she keeps going. “But they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless …” Well, that’s as maybe! Is it to the point, though?! Do insects feel pain?! Then comes the topper. “And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless!” Her solicitude sounds somewhat misplaced. What exactly does she mean by “should always be painless”? She’s not talking of war, one assumes. (So much for her “always”.) Perhaps she’s talking of executions?! The deliberate killing of a human being — in which, apparently, she will have a say! (During all of this, the dull, adenoidal shop assistant says nothing.) No doubt the point of the scene, structurally, is that it comes within minutes of the bloody killing of Marion in her shower by Mother. The lady customer’s concern for pain-free death strikes a humane note, but she has no inkling of what has occurred up the road at the Bates Motel. Her opinion can’t help but seem inadequate in the face of what the audience has just witnessed. On the other hand, as a piece of “light relief”, it is perfectly judged — like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth which follows hard on the bloody murder of Duncan by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Stefano had an excellent ear for repetition and other verbal mannerisms (like Norman’s stutter — though that may have been Tony Perkins’s own contribution).  Caroline’s willing diffidence, for example: “Teddy called me; my mother called to see if Teddy called. Oh, your sister called to say …” Or the mad cunning of Norman’s seeming acceptance when he has finally become his Mother: “They’ll see and they’ll say, and [pause] they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly!'” Or Sam’s repeated disgruntled reference to his “sweating” to pay alimony.

Then there is the film’s motif of impatience, of not being able to wait. The two sisters are its embodiment. As Lila says, “Patience doesn’t run in my family.” When Sam announces to her that’s he’s going out to the motel, and that she should stay behind, she complains, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Just sit here and wait?” (“Yeah!”, he responds.) Marion’s impatience to get married is the wellspring of Psycho. Wryly, she tells the stolid Sam, “They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.” She means, apparently, that she feels demeaned by having to have their rushed trysts at lunch-hour. (She will be paying in another way before long, the $40,000 not availing her.) Curiously, her phraseology echoes John Milton’s famous line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It’s another example of the resourceful Stefano’s ability to inject poetry—literally or in effect—into his screenplay.

Psycho is full of little hints and prolepses that lead us on, invoking our curiosity and promising pay-offs. In effect, it is built on the principle enunciated by Freud for telling tendentious, i.e., risqué, jokes: establish a suitable mood, protract the listener’s wait for the punch-line, include lesser climaxes along the way that serve as foreshadowing. One classic Hitchcockian prototype was the amusement park sequence in Strangers on a Train (1951). Recall its river-caves sequence where Bruno begins to stalk Miriam, intending to kill her. His boat follows hers, in which she and her boyfriends are fooling around. In the darkness, we hear a girl scream, but it’s a false alarm — girls do squeal when having fun with their young men! Bruno is biding his time. Relentlessly he tracks her, even allowing her to notice him and giving her a come-on. (The trampish Miriam is happy to flirt back.) The group, including Bruno, crosses the park’s lake to its Island of Love where various couples are making out on the sloping grass. The licentious mood is now pronounced. When Miriam briefly becomes separated from the boys — she may even have engineered it to give Bruno his chance — he moves in for the kill, literally. In Psycho, the structure is punctuated by at least three shocking climaxes with frequent little prolepses, including musical cues (read on). Durgnat is perfectly correct when he says that the cumulative effect reduces us to a helpless hysteria! By the final scenes, we are sufficiently worked up and almost pleading with Hitchcock to deliver his coup de grace.

Techniques

One of the director’s unfailing techniques was to work closely with Bernard Herrmann to arouse audience expectations, then relax the tension for a time. (There is a rhythm of suspense.) The score contains any number of ascending and descending passages, intimations of what this film is capable of, and what it will deliver, again and again, and again, i.e., its three main climaxes. Likewise, the script titillates us with little references that are only explained later. Norman refers to his mother’s involvement with a man, after her husband died, who “could have talked her into anything”. Only, when he died too, it was “just too great a shock”. “And,” adds Norman, “the way he died …” He trails off and changes the subject. Later we find out that the shock was Norman’s as much as his mother’s. (In fact, her intention to re-marry had already, in the psychiatrist’s words, “pushed him over the line” and he “killed them both”.) When Lila and Sam go to visit Sheriff Chambers, he mentions in passing “that bad business out [at the Bates Motel] about ten years ago.” Our ears prick up, but we have to wait until given a further clue about how “Norman’s mother has been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for the past ten years”.  Confused, we still don’t know the details of “that bad business out there.” Finally, the Sheriff describes what he calls a murder-suicide: “Mrs. Bates poisoned this guy she was involved with, when she found out he was married, then took a helping of the same stuff herself. Strychnine.” (Clearly, the police concluded that gentle Norman had nothing to do with it!) And again, when in an overhead high long-shot, already used for the murder of Arbogast, Norman carries Mother downstairs, we hear her protest at being taken to the fruit-cellar: “You hid me there once, boy, and you won’t do it again, not ever again.”  Again confused, we wonder to what occasion she is referring. Only when the psychiatrist clears up matters at the end — in a necessary scene that has been, I think, unfairly maligned5 — do we hear that Norman substituted a weighted coffin for his mother’s body, and, drawing on his taxidermy skills, kept the treated body in the cellar.

Metaphysics

There’s a metaphysical truth underpinning Psycho, giving it weight. In 1960, after completing the film, Hitchcock told an interviewer: “Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.” The film’s psychiatrist speaks of reality coming “too close” to Norman, pushing him over the line into madness. Which is tantamount to saying that Norman represents something in all of us. Compare again Schopenhauer’s assertion that we are all bound in subjectivity, that we cannot know the one Will (though we may, he thought, sense it working in, and through, us), only its manifestation in endless Representations. But is your set of Representations ultimately any more real than mine?!

Generally, Hitchcock’s films draw a lot of their suggestive power from what I’ll call their Vague Symbolism.6 I’m thinking, for example, of the role Hitchcock assigns to Psycho‘s stuffed birds (an owl with outspread wings, a perching crow, a pheasant).  And why, for that matter, is Norman himself given bird-like gestures (arms spread out, or twice “flapping” his upraised palm at Marion as if to say, agreeably, “Don’t trouble yourself!”).  As noted, he tells Marion in that same scene, “You eat like a bird!”  Later, Mother defends herself by putting all the blame on Norman: “As if I could do anything but just sit and stare like one of his stuffed birds.” Even Marion, at the end of the parlor scene, as she leaves to go to her room, trails her arm behind her like a wounded bird.  Hitchcock loved such visual poetry, using images – “pure cinema”, he often called it – to say things beyond the everyday power of words to evoke. You might say that he was suggesting parallels between the diversity of the bird realm and the human realm — both have their aggressors and their victims, for example – and again Schopenhauer comes to mind, for his insistence that there is an unbroken continuity between humans and animals: all are part of Will (roughly, the life-force).

Here’s a different form of repetition, which may again suggest the life-force: again and again in the early scenes, Marion’s wide eyes are highlighted, as when, catching up after her lunchtime assignation with Sam, she applies make-up at her desk in the office. Then, when she goes on the road, we are again treated to those same eyes, belonging to the vivacious Janet Leigh. Gradually, though, the glare of the road, and — after night descends — the oncoming headlights of other cars, take their toll, and Marion’s eyes narrow. At one moment, she seems in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Precisely then, the illuminated “Bates Motel” sign looms up and, fatefully, Marion pulls in. Marion’s murder in her shower — occasioning unprecedented shock and horror for the audience — is aptly underlined by a bravura cut from an extreme close-up of blood running down a plughole to a view of her now lifeless eye, then an incredible sustained pull-back to take in the bedroom and the unattended money, concealed in a folded newspaper. Then on to the open window and a view of the tall house behind the motel. From one of its windows, presumably, the one where we saw Mother pacing when Marion first arrived in the rain (a sound now replaced by that of the still-running shower in Marion’s cabin), comes the voice of Norman: “Mother!  Oh God!  Mother, mother!  Blood, blood!”

In some ways, the wordless scene where Norman, the good, dutiful son, cleans up the shower stall and bath (and, at the last minute, heedlessly tosses the newspaper concealing the stolen money into the boot of Marion’s car alongside her body wrapped in a shower-curtain — a grim parallel there), then sinks the car in the nearby swamp, is my favorite scene in Psycho. (Another is the entire road sequence. Another is Norman and Marion’s conversation.) Here, too, there’s an echo of Macbeth, as when Lady Macbeth says, dismissively and almost facetiously, “A little water clears us of this deed!” Only, Hitchcock wants to underline his grim situation in a cinematic way, at the same time giving us a “breather” after all that has just happened. Once Norman has stowed Marion’s body in the boot, he returns with a mop and pail to clean up. In a “prelude” that signals what will follow, he washes his bloodied hands in the basin. The music has gone high and eerie. His movements are rapid and efficient: no namby-pamby dabbing for Norman. Then he moves on to the bigger task of cleaning up the entire shower stall and bathroom. Again he does the job efficiently, and we watch, riveted. By now, the music is performing little swirling movements of its own in apt curlicues that seem to chase each other, maintaining the eeriness. In retrospect, we can appreciate that they are already evoking the title of the film, a mind that is unhinged (no wonder that Norman had spoken of his dislike of “creepy smells”).

But that’s enough. Psycho is primarily a film to be seen — and lived through. In North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock had Thornhill say, near the end, “I never felt more alive!” It’s the journey that Hitchcock offers us, that is so rewarding. Over and again!

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Notes

  1. Too dogmatic? By Durgnat’s own description, the agreeable car-dealer California Charlie is part of what constitutes the Will that impels us all. (After all, Will is ubiquitous.)
  1. Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread defined Dread as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy”.
  1. Leading the way, Saul Bass’s opening titles for North by Northwest (1959) incorporated a stylised MGM lion roaring against a sinister green background.

4.  Hitchcock acknowledged his admiration for Hopper’s paintings — among which, of course, is “House by the Railroad” (1925), a palpable model for the Psycho house.

Edward Hopper - House by the Railroad (1925)

  1. Employing a culinary metaphor, someone has said that many reviewers and critics appear to “have never been in the kitchen” — meaning, they’ve not considered every aspect of what it takes to prepare a balanced and satisfying meal.
  1. I don’t mean the elusive “figure in the carpet” of an author’s work, as incorporated in the title of Henry James’s novella (1896) to which Penelope Houston referred in her denigratory article on Hitchcock in the Autumn 1963 Sight and Sound. But nor do I mean a simple symbol like the final image of North by Northwest (a train entering a tunnel) which Hitchcock admitted was a phallic symbol!

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Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999, revised 2008) covers every film “in loving detail” (Bill Krohn). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on “Hitchcock’s Literary Influences” for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (Wiley Blackwell 2011,  2014), and an essay on “The Cutting Room” in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012).

Vertigo: Another Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Classic

Vertigo - One Sheet

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Dan Auiler

This article is the second in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

Vertigo - SS15 (4K UHD-Reduced)

Vertigo in 4K—The clarity, the better black levels from HDR, the extraordinary color—but I guess at this point it will still remain an underrated achievement by Robert Burks (Hitchcock’s cinematographer). Then we have the ever improving quality of the film’s sound to match its stellar image quality. These upgrades continue to assure that at least another generation of people will become caught up in the whirlpool of this very, very interesting film. You will notice that I wrote “interesting.” You may have also noticed that I have not bowed before the film with the usual pile of critical adjectives that are usually bestowed upon it. Indeed, even at the time of its original release, Vertigo was Hitchcock’s “masterpiece.” It says so right on the Saul Bass poster.

Vertigo is Hitchcock’s masterpiece. We know that. We keep coming back to the film not to revel in an artist’s brilliance. If you want showboating Hitchcock, you had better look at his more popular efforts—Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window—the list is so vast that they are enough to elevate Hitchcock to our attention and to continue our unashamed veneration. He deserves all the praise and his critical position. Cinema is better for this and we are better because of this. I suggest that more importantly, Vertigo will survive because of this. The film has been a survivor despite several damning features. The film was a dud on release. No one, most especially Mr. Hitchcock, was really happy with the outcome. Average box office indicated that his audience agreed. Do you know what you want when you sit down to watch a movie? I don’t. I once thought that I knew.  

I saw Vertigo for the first time during its first very troubled re-release after Alfred and Alma had died. Vertigo had been trapped as the prisoner of its creator and was seldom shared or shown due to a quirk in contracting and money. Hitchcock held the rights to a handful of films made with Paramount. Three of these films are in this 4K collection. Only The Birds is an actual Universal picture. It is fair critical assessment to write that after The Birds, Hitchcock had reached the end of his career. The films that follow are fine and manage to do the most important thing required of late career films—they don’t tarnish his reputation.

This second life of Vertigo was nearly as damaging as its first life. I was there and witnessed it. The film not only looked far worse than the other films packaged with this 1984 release, but it was determinedly the “ugly Betty” in the group. I don’t even think Universal bothered to look at the film before releasing it as it had an unfortunate, and to audiences hilarious, repeated moment. The “it can’t matter to you” scene printed twice. The moment was already a snicker line. Seen twice in an obvious printing error made it a hoot. The fact any audience saw such an easily caught physical mistake indicates just how important this prestige picture was to the studio.

Vertigo survived though to hold the original acolytes who were so very lucky to see something I have only dreamt of seeing, the film in 1958 in that ephemeral pristine moment of intended perfection, the premiere in San Francisco in May of 1958. Had you been there, you would have seen the film as perfect as 1958 could allow in IB Technicolor and in Vistavision. 

Vistavision was almost never screened in 65mm because of the cost and work involved to make a theater ready for such a thing. Major film theaters in our biggest cities may have shown a week long engagement in the large format after that initial screening, but after this short limited engagement, no one would see Vertigo in the beautiful format that it filmed in (with colors approaching the original Technicolor) until 1997. It only took 40 years and two generations!

No other film in the art form’s brief history has received such an essential preservation. Why? Why Vertigo?  The film’s dialogue echoes in my mind: “Why did you pick on me? Why me?” I have to be careful here. The emotion of the film always overwhelms me. I cannot hide how deeply the film affects me. I’m embarrassed to write that even now my cheeks are wet with tears. Real, authentic deep-well tears. It may be that you will think I’m just an old film geek, and it may be foolish. It might be “sentimental.” (Ah! Hear that? Another echo: “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”) The film overwhelms me as I know it does so many others. I am watching it again even now, but I keep coming back to it—overwhelmed and shattered by the entire last reel.

Did I already mention that I no longer know why I even watch movies?  I don’t know anymore, but in that strict Zen Kōan that Vertigo has become for film audiences, filmmakers, historians, and fans, I do know… It would have been better to write that there are no words to properly articulate why films—and Vertigo in particular—remain vital to me. By “vital,” I mean “so fucking important that there is no Dan without Vertigo.”

I’m sure—like a creature from Poe—it’s easy to imagine that I’m some wild Gollum-like thing who is screaming for his precious. I am. And forty years from now, where will you be? Out in the sunshine of tomorrow? Or here with me in the darkness of the filmed past—portals of the past—swimming against the whirlpool… against the riptide that is Hitchcock’s—Wait… No. Our—Our Masterpiece, Vertigo.

Vertigo - SS20 (4K UHD-Reduced)

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Dan Aulier Books

Dan Auiler is the author of Vertigo: The Making of A Hitchcock Classic, Hitchcock’s Notebooks, and Hitchcock Lost. He also contributed to Ken Mogg’s The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Robert Jones’s Hitchcock’s California, and a TASCHEN volume entitled Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot.

Rear Window: In the Heat of the Night

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Robert Jones

This article is the first in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release ofThe Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

 “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine?” —Uncle Charlie Oakley (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943)

In what is arguably the grimmest character portrayal in any Alfred Hitchcock film, Joseph Cotten gives voice to the darkest worldview of any of the director’s legendary villains. In Shadow, con man Uncle Charlie’s darkness is alien to the sunny outlook of his extended family in Santa Rosa, California. But, in his 1954 Paramount release Rear Window, the audience gets to witness Uncle Charlie’s malignant philosophy as legendary director Alfred Hitchcock rips open the backs of a block of apartments in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Hitchcock personally regarded Shadow of a Doubt as his best film, a view he maintained even after he produced and directed what is widely regarded as the triad of his greatest films: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). This is quite telling: Hitch called his method of moviemaking “subjective.” From the construction of his screenplays, to the camerawork and editing that tell the movie’s story from the points-of-view of the characters that people his films, to the audience identifying with their heroes, heroines, and heavies, Hitchcock conjured films that were deeply personal.

Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock’s ultimate projection of this philosophy of filmmaking. The movie’s theme is confinement. This is the third time Hitchcock explored this theme, by putting all the action in a single setting. His first experiment with single-set motion pictures, Lifeboat (1944), takes place in a rescue vessel as its eight occupants try to survive being stranded at sea. It was filmed in a tank built on a 20th Century Fox soundstage.

Hitch’s next entry in this genre he helped to create, Rope (1948), took place in an elaborate Manhattan penthouse apartment set, from which we can see New York City’s majestic skyline; the entire movie was filmed in a “single take,” that is, in eight sequential takes of ten minutes apiece, that flowed one to the next. Rope was Hitchcock’s most ambitious project to date, although it did poorly at the box office.

With Rear Window, however, Hitchcock ratcheted the ambition to eleven: A set of thirty-one apartments (a dozen of which were fully furnished) was built on one of Paramount’s sound stages. The floorboards were removed in sections to extend the set’s courtyard down into what had been the basement.

Motion pictures employ the art of illusion-making, and Rear Window is no exception. What you see is not what you see, but what you think you see. When I attended film school at Manhattan’s Hunter College, one of my professors mentioned how adventurous movie buffs would find their way to 125 West 9th Street, only to eventually find out that not a single second of footage was ever shot in New York! (However, Hitchcock’s insistence on verisimilitude can still be found in the rear window courtyard found at 125 Christopher Street, which was the source inspiration for Rear Window.)

The movie’s titles open up in a dolly-forward shot before cutting to a long panning shot of the self-encased courtyard, apartment buildings, and their denizens. After panning across the backyard flats of a Greenwich Village neighborhood, the camera returns home to find the movie’s protagonist, photojournalist L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart appearing in his second Hitchcock film). Hitchcock is giving us Jefferies’s backstory in a masterpiece of mise-en-scène and exposition. In one traveling pan, Hitch and cinematographer Robert Burks let the reader intuit what they need to know about Jefferies, to set up the movie’s premise:

  1. Stewart is asleep, sweat beading on his brow, in a wheelchair.
  2. He’s wearing a full leg cast that reads, “Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies.”
  3. A thermometer at an open window reads ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit. (These were in the days before most people had home air conditioning.)
  4. Next, the camera stops at a smashed up press camera, then resumes its motion.
  5. A photograph on the wall shows two race cars colliding, with a dislodged wheel flying right at you.
  6. An assortment of framed photographs, cameras, press plates, and a stack of magazines.

In forty-two seconds, Hitchcock has given us everything we need to know about who L.B. Jefferies is, what he does for a living, and how he got in this predicament. It would have taken a more conventional director of the same era at least ten minutes to explain all this through dialogue—and even then, the tale would have come off as so far-fetched and convoluted as to defy belief.

The story of Rear Window is quite simple: Jefferies (known to friends and co-workers as “Jeff”), confined to a wheelchair in a cramped Manhattan apartment, whiles away his time by observing the daily dramas of a cast of colorful characters out his back window. Jeff doesn’t even know his neighbors who populate the stage of apartment windows, doorways, and fire escapes of their own daily dramas. The characters all are named by their physical features or occupations: “Miss Torso,” the ballet dancer (Georgine Darcy), “Miss. Hearing Aid,” the over the hill sculptress (Jesslyn Fax), “The Songwriter,” constantly composing at his piano (Ross Bagdasarian), “The Newlywed Couple,” who just moved into a small apartment next to Jeff (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport), “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the frustrated middle-aged single (Judith Evelyn), and “The Childless Couple” who sleep with their dog on the fire escape to escape the heat (Sara Berner and Frank Cady). And, so on.

When I introduced my kids to Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, I chose Rear Window. Everything is so elemental, even more than a stage play. It’s as though each apartment Jimmy Stewart is peering at through his window is a comic strip panel, where stories unfold, step-by-step. Hitch and screenwriter John Michael Hayes give starkly definable roles and tasks to their inhabitants. Their behaviors, with their ups and downs, follow predictable routines. They become stand-ins for how Hitchcock casts his pictures, as Stewart stands in for Hitchcock, a giant master of puppets with a doll’s house view of his Lilliputian neighbors.

While the world outside Jeff’s window is two-dimensional, inside, not so much. Everyone who enters complicates his life, from his editor (the voice of Gig Young, via telephone), the insurance company nurse, Stella (the irascible, wisecracking Thelma Ritter), and his fashion model girlfriend, Lisa (played with a spring in her step and a lilt in her voice by a young Grace Kelly) all come and parry with the temporary inconvenienced invalid.

Jeff is cranky, bristling to everyone he speaks—often contradicting himself. He tries to one-up everyone. “Oh, stop sounding stuffy!” to editor who wants him to stay put and heal. To the working class Stella, he switches gears and comes off as stuffy to Ritter’s bluntness, in riposte to her story about how she predicted the 1929 stock market crash: “Uh, Stella, in economics, a kidney ailment has no relationship to the stock market. None, whatsoever.” He’s contentious with Lisa, who wants to turn him into a corporate man, desperately trying to domesticate him and shed his Jeep and pith helmet world traveler life, in exchange for a buttoned-down corporate persona. He’s become a man uncomfortable in his own skin, because his skin is encased in a “plaster cocoon.”

And, every day and night, he peers out the window, and slowly realizes how powerless he really is on the stage of his own recurring dramas. Until, on yet another sweltering night, there is a change. The drabbest of his neighbors, a costume jewelry salesman across the way, becomes the object of his focus: Jeff hears a woman’s scream in the dark, and suddenly becomes curious about the seeming disappearance of the salesman’s wife.

Raymond Burr’s portrayal of door-to-door salesman, Lars Thorwald, is a study in the evil of banality. He lays bare the ugly truth of Uncle Charlie’s dictum of ripping the fronts off houses and finding porcine inhabitants. But, unlike Charlie’s lady-killing charmer, Thorwald is uninspired, humorless, and drab—there is nothing dashing or cunning about him. Jeff nonetheless becomes obsessed with him, spying on him with binoculars and a telephoto lens mounted on his SLR camera. Stewart wields the camera like an M-1 carbine, lining up Thorwald in his sights.

He finds himself in his element again, and convinces Lisa that something sinister is afoot. Enter Jeff’s Army buddy and now police detective Lt. Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who has a rational explanation to explain everything Jeff has witnessed:

Doyle: You didn’t see the killing or the body. How do you know there was a murder?

Jeff: Because everything this fellow’s done has been suspicious. Trips at night in the rain. Knives, saws, trunks with rope, and now a wife that isn’t there anymore.

Doyle: I admit it does have a mysterious sound. But it could be any number of things for the wife disappearing. Murder is the least likely.

Could Jeff be mistaken? Is he letting his imagination get the better of him, as Joan Fontaine did in Suspicion (1941)? In the most subtle use of subjective storytelling, Jeff’s asleep in his wheelchair while missing the most crucial piece of evidence in his murder theory: Lars Thorwald leaves his apartment with a woman who’s obviously his wife, en route to the train station. By disclosing to the viewer what he’s pointedly failed to reveal to Jeff, Hitchcock always leaves the viewer thinking, and staying one step ahead of the picture’s hero. The director’s conceit pays off big-time by movie’s end.

In trying to relate his disappointment over Lisa, Stewart confides to Stella, “She’s too perfect, she’s too talented, she’s too beautiful, she’s too sophisticated, she’s too everything but what I want.” When we first see Grace Kelly, she’s exquisitely tailored in an “A steal at $1,100!” ($11,000 in today’s money) imported silk Italian dress, right off the modeling runway.

Lisa and Jeff are constantly at loggerheads. She wants to turn him into Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and he wants to make a homebody and travel companion of her. And, over the course of the motion picture, Kelly’s wardrobe gradually becomes plainer and less extravagant: by movie’s end, she’s wearing floral print house dresses, and simple red cotton blouses and blue jeans. Expertly tailored, of course, but much more accessible to the audience’s expectations of 1950s middle class womanhood.

In other words, without a word uttered, Grace Kelly transformed herself from Madeleine into Judy!

Rear Window is a tour de force of filmmaking. In the sixty-six years since its release, it has been one of Hitchcock’s most beloved motion pictures. Yet, a schism still exists between its partisans, and those who prefer Vertigo, which was voted atop Sight and Sound’s poll in 2012.

Most of Alfred Hitchcock’s output is constantly judged against his ultimate triad of masterpieces: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). He set such a high standard, his “lesser” films are constantly found wanting when juxtaposed with these three iconic movies. I can’t even count how many times otherwise objective critics and movie historians have complained that solid movies like Family Plot (his last picture, in 1976), The Wrong Man (1956), and Secret Agent (1936) fall far short of the standard Hitchcock set with Vertigo. I think they’re missing the point: only Vertigo is Vertigo; finding Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony falling far short of his Ninth Symphony is missing the point entirely. A great work of art must first be judged on its own standards.

For those armchair critics who find Rear Window lacking in subtlety of visual sophistication, I submit it is upon Rear Window’s shoulders which Alfred Hitchcock’s later masterpieces stand.

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Robert Jones is a former Army photojournalist and the author and photographer of Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye (along with Dan Auiler and Aimee Sinclair). The book is currently available for purchase at amazon.com.