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.

Blu-ray Review: To Catch a Thief (Paramount Presents Series)

TCAT - 2D Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Release Date: April 21, 2020

Region: Region A

Length: 01:46:31

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English Dolby TrueHD

Alternate Audio:

2.0 Mono Spanish (Castilian) Dolby Digital

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin) Dolby Digital

2.0 Mono French: Dolby Digital

2.0 Mono Italian Dolby Digital

2.0 Mono German Dolby Digital

2.0 Mono Japanese Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Japanese, and Finnish

Ratio: 1.78:1

Notes: Paramount originally released “To Catch a Thief” on Blu-ray in 2012, but this new “Paramount Presents” edition offers a different image and sound transfer.

TCAT - Title - Paramount Presents

“Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense…I deliberately photographed Grace Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classical, beautiful, and distant. And then, when Cary Grant accompanies her to the door of her hotel room, what does she do? She thrusts her lips right up to his mouth…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The moment described in the above quote is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most memorable screen kisses (and his filmography is filled with them). It is this moment that he spoke of most when discussing To Catch a Thief. The director had originally purchased the rights to David Dodge’s novel as a property for his Transatlantic production company before the book was even published for $15,000, but he was able to make a healthy profit after the company went under by selling it to Paramount for $105,000. In the end, it would turn out to be a very nice investment for both parties.

It is certainly easy to understand why the property appealed to Hitchcock. Even a simple synopsis of the novel’s opening scenes indicate several Hitchcockian themes: an innocent man accused of a crime, the double chase, a protagonist masquerading as someone else, and the list expands as the story progresses:

“The novel centers on the character of John Robie, a former American acrobat-turned-jewel-thief known as ‘Le Chat,’ who in the 1930s preyed upon the Riviera’s wealthy visitors until he was captured and imprisoned. Released by the Germans during the occupation, Robie joined the Resistance, becoming a member of the Maquis, and later retired to a quiet life at his Villa des Bijoux.

When a new series of jewel robberies is committed, Commissaire Orial suspects Robie is up to his old tricks and comes to arrest him. After a daring escape, Robie seeks assistance from his former Maquis leader, Henri Bellini, who persuades him to lead an underworld manhunt to apprehend the thief. Robie disguises himself as Jack Burns, a middle-aged New York insurance salesman vacationing in Cannes. There, Robie seeks out prospective victims while Bellini’s gang watches for the thief…” –Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock, 2001)

TCAT - Book - Paperback Cover

“All that survived in the end were the title, the names of some of the characters, and the copyright—which was mine.” –David Dodge

Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation follows along these same lines, but he made plenty of alterations in an effort to focus the drama and turn it into a fetishistic romance. John Michael Hayes returned to help the director turn the property into a Hitchcock film after their enjoyable (and enormously successful) collaboration on Rear Window. Still, Hitchcock wanted Hayes to learn the lay of the land before they began their writing sessions and sent the writer and his wife on a trip to the Riviera for research:

“So we went over, and they got a French assistant director as our guide, and we went down and did research. But I said to Hitch, ‘I don’t really need to go. I’ve written Westerns and murders and other things, and I don’t have to do it to know it.’ Hitch insisted, ‘It will make it easier for me and for you to get the feel of the place and not just have to look at picture books.’ So we spent two weeks there, had a wonderful time, and I thought of the scene in the flower market because of it. It was my wife’s birthday (December 10), and as I walked through the flower market, I ordered a whole lot of them and filled our hotel room with so many flowers, it looked like a florist’s shop.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

After Hayes had absorbed the hotspots of the French Riviera, he and Hitchcock were able to buckle down and create a detailed treatment (although it was somewhat less detailed and quite a bit shorter than was typical for Hitchcock). This process allowed the director to work out the film’s structure and many of the details of his famous visual sequences so that his writers could focus primarily on characterization and dialogue—and John Michael Hayes excelled in these two particular areas:

“Plotting was not my greatest talent… Dialogue, character, and dialogue were. I was presented with the same problem as Rear Window. You’ve got this basic background and all we had to do is just sit down and ask, ‘What if he did this?’ ‘What if he did that?’ And gradually our plot grew. David Dodge wrote the book, and he was quite surprised that a drama came of it. But Hitch did it.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

There were a few elements that were originally in the book: John Robie’s impromptu escape from his own villa, Francie’s suspicion that Robie is guilty of the robberies, the accidental murder of the wrong thief by the police, and the rooftop climax. Quite a few characters and story threads were omitted in favor of a more focused and streamlined narrative. A few of the characterizations also changed. This is particularly true of Bellini as he was a loyal friend in Dodge’s novel and not the criminal mastermind and restaurateur of Hitchcock’s film:

“I learned that a lot of people in the underground were restaurant workers—cooks, chefs, and waiters. Hitch and I thought we could get them all together as a group in Bellini’s restaurant, and this would also give the gang access to the wealthy. They could overhear their conversations, could judge the jewelry they wore, and use the restaurant as a source of great information.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

Minor adjustments to other characters were made: the brunette Francie Stevens of Dodge’s novel became a glacial blond (to the surprise of no one), an insurance man named Mr. Paige becomes Mr. Hughson and is introduced into the story much earlier, and the character of Danielle’s father was added to the film as a replacement for the book’s accomplice in the crimes… The list goes on and on.

Developing the script wasn’t a particularly smooth process as the writer and director had occasional differences of opinion:

“Hitchcock and Hayes held almost daily script conferences through the late winter and early spring of 1954. Frequently, these meetings were at Hitchcock’s house… Their lunch was prepared and served by the director’s German cook. One scene in To Catch a Thief takes place at Robie’s villa, where Robie (Cary Grant) and Huston (John William) share lunch and a humorous disquisition on quiche Lorraine, served by Robie’s cook. That scene was inspired by a quiche Lorraine lunch served at Bellagio Road.

The quiche scene, though, also spurred friction between the director and writer. Hitchcock was ‘preoccupied with strangulation,’ according to Hayes, and he wanted the scene to end with the insurance man praising the delicate crust of the quiche, and the ‘exceedingly light touch’ of Robie’s cook, who quietly serves it around. Robie concurs, adding ‘She strangled a German General once, without a sound.’

Hayes objected to such morbid comedy, but Hitchcock said too bad; he was the boss, and the line stayed in. The scene was pure Hitchcock—and also served as one of several that expanded the role of the insurance agent…” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

TCAT - Egg Toss

“He supposedly hated eggs, and yet he was absolutely crazy about soufflés and quiche Lorraine, which he insisted we put in the screenplay after we had it one afternoon for lunch.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

However, this particular disagreement was minor. They had a number of “slam-bang script fights,” but the most passionate of these creative battles was over the film’s ending:

“I must have written a dozen endings for that picture. I had a scene that I liked… But Hitch got angry because I showed the scene to Grace and Cary, to get their opinion of the one I liked, and that was his function—not mine—and he was right. Although, I did it innocently [and] not with any sinister intent… The ending that I liked was with the little sunbeam—Francie’s car—with which she took him for a ride over the Corniche and scared the hell out of him. I wanted the last love scene to be played in that car—on the edge of the road—overlooking Monte Carlo. There’s a cliff and this town way down there, I wanted them to be hugging and kissing, and the car starts to roll forward, and they don’t notice. They’re so absorbed in each other. It keeps rolling towards the edge of the cliff, and finally Francie says, ‘John?’ He says, ‘Yes?’ She says, ‘Will you do me a favor?’ ‘What?’ he asks. ‘Would you put your foot on the brake, please?’ He puts his foot on the brake and the bumper is just hanging over the edge, and I wanted to end there. But I couldn’t convince Hitch to do it.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

In Hitchcock’s defense, it is difficult to imagine the film having any other ending than the one that was eventually used.

“Since To Catch a Thief is in a rather nostalgic mood, I didn’t want to wind up with a completely happy ending. That’s why I put in that scene by the tree, when Cary Grant agrees to marry Grace Kelly. It turns out that the mother-in-law will come and live with them, so the final note is pretty grim.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The creative clashes between Hitchcock and Hayes were inevitable. Such disagreements are common and are often good for the final film. However, one particular incident was especially difficult for the director to accept:

“Hayes always insisted that Mrs. Hitchcock never sat in on a single one of their conferences, or ventured any suggestions in his presence; that the director never said anything that expressly reflected his wife’s opinion, except once: ‘Alma liked your script.’ It was his highest compliment—though people didn’t always take it well…

…If Mrs. Hitchcock was no longer working openly on scripts, she was still quietly reading them and offering advice on key scenes… It was Alma, the driver in their marriage, who took the lead on mapping out the Grand Corniche sequence, where Francie and Robie are pursued in her car by Sûreté nationale agents. Alma had the curves of the road memorized, according to Coleman, and told him where the unit should perch on the perpendicular cliffs overlooking the small town of Eze. The car-chase sequence excited Mrs. Hitchcock so much, according to Coleman, that she joined one of their Sunday afternoon meetings, outlining the action shot by shot… Hitchcock said less than usual, [and] just sat there beaming at his wife…

…Later, when To Catch a Thief was released, an interviewer asked Hayes explicitly about the scene, and he commented innocently, ‘I got carsick writing it.’ Recalled Doc Ericksen: ‘That pissed off Hitchcock pretty good.’ The director walked around the office, shaking his head. ‘Alma and I did that,’ he protested. ‘We worked on it all Sunday afternoon.’” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

TCAT - Speeding

“…I rely on [Alma’s] opinion. She helped work out on paper the chase scene in To Catch a Thief.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Woman Who Knows Too Much, McCall’s, March, 1956)

Unlike most Hitchcock projects, the director was forced to start production before the script was even complete. In fact, John Michael Hayes would travel with the production to the south of France so that he and the director could work on the still incomplete script. It wasn’t at all how Hitchcock preferred to work, and it created a fair amount of logistical complications. A production letter from Doc Erickson (production manager) to Hugh Brown gives a paints a fairly clear picture of where the script was when production was set to begin:

“The condition of the script is not good. Hitch went to work with John Hayes immediately upon his arrival yesterday noon and will be working with him all day today, but he feels there is considerable polishing to be done yet. Physically there are no changes in the story and therefore we are planning our work here based on the green script, but you know how difficult it is to plan efficiently when you know there is a re-write coming. I doubt very seriously that we will have any sort of new script before the end of the week. Naturally, with Hitch working on the script every day, we will have very little opportunity to show him any of the location sites for pre-production shooting.” –Doc Erickson (letter to Hugh Brown as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

Of course, Hitchcock still meticulously planned his sequences before the cameras rolled. The only difference here was that he had an enormous amount of location footage to capture, and his lack of control over certain practical issues forced a number of compromises upon him. Even so, André Bazin couldn’t tell that such concerns bothered the director when he visited his set:

“We met the first time at the flower market in Nice. They were shooting a scuffle. Cary Grant was fighting with two or three ruffians and rolling on the ground under some pink flowers. I had been watching for a good hour, during which time Hitchcock did not have to intervene more than twice; settled in his armchair, he gave the impression of being prodigiously bored and of musing about something completely different… The sequence was repeated three or four times in my presence before being judged satisfactory, after which they were to prepare to shoot the following sequence — an insert in close-up of Cary Grant’s head under an avalanche of pink flowers… When I saw him finally get up and go over for an earnest talk with the star and the assistants, I assumed that here at last was a matter of some delicate adjustment of the mise-en-scène; a minute later he came towards me shaking his head, pointing to his wristwatch, and I thought he was trying to tell me that there was no longer enough light for color — the sun being quite low. But he quickly disabused me of that idea with a very British smile: ‘Oh! No, the light is excellent, but Mister Cary Grant’s contract calls for stopping at six o’clock; it is six o’clock exactly, so we will retake this sequence tomorrow.’” –André Bazin (Hitchcock contre Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, October 01, 1954)

Such demands were expected from Cary Grant. Convincing the semi-retired actor to portray the film’s protagonist took an enormous amount of effort, but Hitchcock knew that the film was suffer without him in the role of John Robie. The director even took a pay cut by transferring the rights of the film to Paramount and changed his contract so that his ten percent of the profits would be paid only after Grant had been paid his ten percent. This sacrifice was necessary to appease Grant’s star-sized ego, but Hitchcock knew that the final result would be well worth it in the end. (This is why To Catch a Thief isn’t currently owned by Universal.)

The actor would often arrive on the set hoping to re-write is lines or alter some piece of action required for a scene. Hitchcock would tell the star to address Hayes with his issues, and Grant would comply without knowing that the writer had been prompted by Hitchcock to stall the actor when such instances occurred. Hayes stalled his decision until the crew was ready with the set-up in question so that it would be too late to make pointless changes. Unfortunately, Grant would soon catch on and later demanded to run through a scene two ways (his own and as scripted). The trouble with this is that his performance was intentionally awkward when doing the scene as written and spot-on while doing his own version of the scene. This fooled no one, so Hitchcock then prompted everyone on the set to enthusiastically applause after he ran the scene correctly and to remain apathetic when the actor performed his own version of the scene. Grant wouldn’t give the director any more trouble. It was important that the actor do a scene Hitchcock’s way, because he had already meticulously planned all of his shots. Any variance on the part of an actor could destroy the pre-planned effect of a scene.

TCAT - Grace Kelly in Shadow - Original 2012

Grace Kelly was more than happy to turn down the role of Edie Doyle in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront to work with Hitchcock again, and both directors would benefit from her choice. (Kazan would eventually cast Eva Marie Saint in the role.)

The film’s expensive location shooting resulted in a fairly pleasant shoot for all involved, but it also forced a number of compromises on Hitchcock. For one thing, the budget itself was inadequate for some of the sequences that Hitchcock had planned:

“[The] script called for a wild chase through Nice, with Robie dodging police amid a carnival procession of floats, ultimately climbing inside the head of King Neptune. As he had done with the Lord Mayor’s Show for Sabotage, the director expected to film the actual annual carnival parade, and later re-create key incidents as inserts inside the studio, But after Paramount placed a $3 million ceiling on the budget, the carnival chase seemed too expensive; so in mid-April, on the eve of departure for France, Hitchcock simply deleted the sequence. The film’s flower-market chase was cheaper (and tamer) [without this portion of the sequence].” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

It was also nearly impossible to capture usable dialogue, and a large portion of the film had to be dubbed during post production:

“Gusty winds and constant background racket also forced heavy dialogue rerecording. Music was sometimes the solution. ‘For example, in a scene on the beach at Cannes with Grant the wind is whipping the umbrellas and the canvas on the cabanas,’ remembered [Lyn] Murray. ‘He said there would be absolutely no sound track in this scene—just music.’

‘…In the interest of the schedule and budget [on location],’ recalled George Tomasini’s assistant, John M. Woodcock, ‘Hitch okayed many imperfect takes…’ Ultimately, the sound editors had to insert 250 ‘loops’ of corrected sound—something of a record for the time…” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Of course, some of these problems had little to do with location. Alfred Hitchcock greatly admired the excellent performances that Charles Vanel had given Henri-Georges Clouzot in The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), and he wanted to cast him as Bertani. On the surface, this seemed like excellent casting. However, the actor’s limited understanding of English created problems that few anticipated.

“They tried to teach him phonetically, and that inhibited all the scenes we wanted to do with him, because he hardly moved and spoke in simple sentences. We couldn’t get the subtlety in his part that we wanted—that he could very well have been masterminding this thing… They had his lines on a blackboard, and he tried to look offstage and read the lines. It was too bad, because he was an accomplished actor—with all the subtitles of gesture and intonation—and of course we get none of that.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

In the end, they were forced to reduce his dialogue down to almost nothing and shoot him with his back to the camera or with his mouth covered so that they could re-dub his voice with another actor.

Charles Vanel in WAGES OF FEAR

Charles Vanel in The Wages of Fear (1953).

Charles Vanel in TO CATCH A THIEF

Charles Vanel in To Catch a Thief (1955).

Luckily, he didn’t have these same issues with Brigitte Auber.

“I had seen a Julien Duvivier picture called Sous Ie Ciel de Paris in which [Brigitte Auber] played a country girl who’d come to live in the city. I chose her because the personage had to be sturdy enough to climb all over the villa roofs. At the time, I wasn’t aware that between films Brigitte Auber worked as an acrobat. That turned out to be a happy coincidence.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

TCAT - Brigitte Auber

Brigitte Auber in a publicity photo used in the marketing campaign for To Catch a Thief (1955).

One imagines that Hitchcock was happy when the first unit location footage wrapped on June 25 since this meant that he could enter the controlled atmosphere of a Hollywood soundstage. While Herbert Coleman stayed on in Cannes to supervise the second unit work, Hitchcock ensured that Coleman’s unit was properly capturing the footage as he had envisioned it. A cable to Colman sent on July 8th clearly illustrates this point:

“Dear Herbie,

Saw shot where car avoids [the] oncoming bus, [and I’m] afraid it does not come off for the following reasons. Because we, the camera, are rounding a bend, the bus comes upon us so suddenly [that] it has gone past before we realize the danger.

I think there are two corrections that could be made. First, that we should be proceeding along a straight bit of road with a bend at [the] end so we are aware of the bend long before we come to it. When we reach [the] bend, we should then be shocked to find [a] bus appearing around [the] bend and coming straight at us because sharpness of bend should almost send bus over to [the] wrong side of [the] road, but we ourselves should never actually make [a] turn at [the] bend.

Other point is that in [the] present shot, only half [of] the bus appears on the screen. This, I realize, arises out of [the] fact that you are veering out of its way. This latter fault could be corrected by keeping the camera panned well over to the left so that as [the] camera car swerves, the camera pans over at [the] same time from left to right.

I also feel that scene three seventy five slate 732X now looks as though it is a viewpoint from [the] Sunbeam, although I know [that] it is intended as an establishing shot. Could this not be redone so that [the] camera is shooting back on a three quarter angle slightly ahead of the police car[?]” –Alfred Hitchcock (Cable to Herbert Coleman as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

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Grace Kelly and Edith Head go over a series of costume sketches for Kelly’s gorgeous wardrobe in To Catch a Thief (1955).

The final masquerade ball was primarily shot in the studio. Of course, the most popular aspect of this sequence—even more famous than the unmasking of the film’s primary villain—is Grace Kelly’s lavish golden dress. This is largely due to the brilliance of Edith Head’s design. It is no wonder that she was so incredibly fond of the film:

“When people ask me who my favorite actress is, who my favorite actor is, and what my favorite film is, I tell them to watch To Catch a Thief and they’ll get all the answers. The film was a costume designer’s dream. It had all the ingredients for being fun, a challenge, and a great product. The director was Hitchcock. The stars, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. The location, the Côte d’Azur in the south of France. Grace played the part of possibly the richest woman in America, with the most fabulous clothes and the most fabulous jewels. Her mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis, was equally elegant.

The story revolved around a world of people with great taste and plenty of money. Even the extras were meticulously dressed. At the end of the picture we had a fancy masquerade ball… That was the most expensive setup I’ve ever done. Grace wore a dress of delicate gold mesh, a golden wig, and a golden mask. Hitchcock told me that he wanted her to look like a princess. She did.” –Edith Head (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

TCAT - Edith Head's costume design sketch for To Catch a Thief.

Edith Head’s color costume design sketch for Kelly’s infamous golden dress seen in To Catch a Thief (1955).

The film would earn Head an Oscar nomination for her designs, but she would lose out to Charles LeMaire for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. The wrong person won. There is no overstating the importance of Head’s work on this particular film, but it is worth mentioning that she was mostly responsible for the women’s wardrobes. In fact, Cary Grant was responsible for his own wardrobe:

“Edith dressed the women, but she didn’t design my costumes… I planned and provided everything myself. In fact, I bought everything in Cannes, just before we began shooting. She didn’t go with me when I purchased my clothes, nor did she approve anything. I was the only one who approved my clothes. Hitch trusted me implicitly to select my own wardrobe. If he wanted me to wear something very specific he would tell me, but generally I wore very simple, tasteful clothes—the same clothes I wear off screen.” –Cary Grant (as quoted by Steven DeRosa in ‘Writing with Hitchcock,’ 2001)

The greatest challenge faced by Alfred Hitchcock—the one that always plagued him—concerned censorship, and this particular obstacle was one that followed him throughout the entire process (beginning with the script’s first draft and ending with the final edit):

“Following the Code review of the first draft of the script, Joe Breen logged a number of objections, including: excessive bottom pinching, bikini beachwear and ‘undue breast exposure,’ sexual innuendo in the dialogue, attempts to justify Robie’s past career as a thief, the casino scene in which Robie drops a chip down the cleavage of a woman gambler, a repeated gag in which the French police are shown ogling salacious French postcards, [and] just about everything connected with the fireworks scene… Hayes’s rewrites failed to dispel many of these objections…

Throughout the shooting, Hitchcock continued to reassure the Production Code office that all its objections would be resolved in the final print. Time proved on his side, because Joe Breen retired before the final print was ready for review, leaving the friendlier and more accommodating Geoffrey Shurlock in charge of negotiations. With shooting completed, the director coolly ‘stacked up the violations’ and began horse trading with Shurlock. First to go after a suitable show of resistance, was the scene of the French police ogling salacious postcards. When the film’s composer, Lynn Murray, asked, ‘Why would you take that out? It’s charming,’ Hitchcock explained, ‘The picture doesn’t stand or fall on one little shot. Besides, if I take it out, they won’t complain so much about the fireworks scene.’

In hopes of protecting the fireworks scene, Hitchcock also agreed to cut a few lines of dialogue. Even so, much of the dialogue cited as objectionable in Breen’s script reviews survived… Thus the director shortened Francie’s question during the fireworks scene, ‘Ever had a better offer in your life? One with everything—diamonds, excitement—me?’ by cutting the last three words, but left Robies observation that what Francie needs is ‘two weeks, with a good man, at Niagra Falls’ over the censor’s objections.” –John Billheimer (Hitchcock and the Censors, 2019)

A great many suggestive exchanges were passed by the censors at the end of the day, and this is a testament to Hitchcock’s subtle direction and the charming delivery of the film’s two leads. Innuendo has rarely been as classy as it is in To Catch a Thief. Even so, censorship sometimes forced the director and Hayes to improve upon the dialogue as originally written:

“When her mother’s jewels disappear after the fireworks scene, Francie blames Robie and reveals his identity to her mother, characterizing him as a ‘low worthless thief.’ In the original script, her mother observes, ‘At least I didn’t offer him my treasures in a semi-darkened room.’ The censors objected to this line on the grounds that it implied an ‘intimate relationship’ between Francie and Robie. In response to their objection, Hitchcock and Hayes scrapped the line, replacing it with the more succinct observation, ‘Just what did he steal from you?’ which better reflects the acerbic character of Francie’s mother.” –John Billheimer (Hitchcock and the Censors, 2019)

Initially, none of the alterations initially placated the censors enough to keep the infamous fireworks sequence intact. They were still demanding that Hitchcock fade to black before Francie and Robie lean back on the sofa that they have placed themselves upon. Hitchcock decided not to oblige them and had Lynn Murray alter his sexy score (which had a tenor saxophone highlighting their activities) with string music that was much less steamy. He was happy to allow his visuals to get the point across, and this alteration saved the scene.

The resulting film isn’t one of the director’s best, but there is no denying that it is an incredibly entertaining movie. Critics were certainly taken with the film as most agreed with the assertion printed in The Times that To Catch a Thief contains “more wit than thrills [and] more humor than crime.” They championed the script, the action, and the gorgeous cinematography. Most hinted that it was merely a light entertainment, but those who did seem to agree that it was most certainly top notch in this respect. Most scholars and historians agree with this verdict. If it isn’t essential Hitchcock, it is definitely an extremely enjoyable diversion. Isn’t that more than enough?

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This release is a part of a new series entitled “Paramount Presents,” and one of the primary selling points is the packaging. One must admit that the presentation here is marginally more impressive than what was used for the 2012 edition of this title. The disc is protected by a clear Amaray Blu-ray case that features a dual sided sleeve so that one can see film related cover artwork as well as interior art when one opens the case.

TCAT - Blu-ray Contents

The case is then protected by a slipcase with the same cover design that opens to showcase the original theatrical one sheet artwork. It’s all very nice, but it is debatable as to whether the cover art is an improvement over what was used for the 2012 edition.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Those looking for a significant transfer upgrade will be disappointed. Frankly, the transfer from Paramount’s original Blu-ray release is more attractive to this reviewer’s eyes. The first and perhaps most disappointing change is the heavy cropping that this release exhibits. Their original Blu-ray included more information on all four sides, and some of the cropping choices are fairly sloppy. We have included three comparison samples below in order to illustrate this point:

TCAT - Original 2012 VS. Paramount Presents - Title

TCAT - Original 2012 VS. Paramount Presents - Cameo

TCAT - Original 2012 VS. Paramount Presents - Grace

This new transfer also exhibits a softer image (at least for the most part) and questionable color grading (although some will disagree on this particular point). The color is occasionally improved upon (the opening title sequence is an example), but most scenes suffer from the new grading. Unfortunately, the cropped image makes it so that even the improved scenes suffer. Paramount has also chosen to apply an outrageous amount of DNR (which accounts for the aforementioned softness and the waxy look of this new master. This is bad news since this same master will probably be used for the eventual UHD release as well.

One expects new masters to improve upon prior transfers, but this simply isn’t the case here. The 2012 Blu-ray’s image transfer was just as good as (if not superior to) this updated release.

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Sound Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The new 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix isn’t terrible, but it does seem to prioritize Lyn Murray’s music a bit more than is appropriate. Purists will probably prefer the Mono TrueHD and the 2.0 TrueHD mixes that were included on the 2012 Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the more faithful tracks have not been carried over to this release.

The new 5.1 mix works well enough for the most part. The center channels do the heavy lifting here, and it does sound very nice for an older film. However, this can also be said of the other tracks. One simply wishes that they could have been included here as well.

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Special Features:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Paramount’s marketing material promises new supplemental features, but all we get is one new seven minute featurette. Worse, this is included at the expense of several much better supplements that haven’t been carried over to this release!

The following supplements are included on this new disc:

Feature Length Commentary with Dr. Drew Casper

Luckily, Drew Casper’s commentary track was carried over from the previous Blu-ray release. It is fairly analytical and does not go into any depth about the actual production itself. The dry delivery might turn a few people off, but his analysis of the film remains interesting.

Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly – (06:06)

This featurette was also included on the previous Blu-ray. It is essentially a brief discussion on the film’s two stars, but it focuses on Grant more than Kelly. It relays some interesting information about the stars, but is not very comprehensive.

Filmmaker Focus – (07:19)

The one and only new addition to the disc is an appreciation by Leonard Maltin. It’s a nice little featurette but not particularly enlightening. It certainly isn’t an adequate replacement for the handful of supplements that haven’t been included with this release.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (02:16)

The film’s original trailer was also on the previous Blu-ray edition, but it is great to see that it has been carried over to this disc as well. It’s always nice to have a film’s original trailer, although this particular piece of marketing isn’t as creative as some of the trailers used to promote certain other Hitchcock films.

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What Isn’t Included?

There were several excellent programs on the previous Blu-ray that aren’t included on this one, and it is difficult to understand why they weren’t carried over to this disc. The following titles are available on the previous Blu-ray release, but are not included on this new disc:

The Making of To Catch a Thief – (16:54)

The Making of ‘To Catch a Thief’ focused on the actual production through the release of the film.

Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief – (09:04)

This featurette focused on the writing and casting of the film and was thoroughly interesting and informative.

Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation – (07:33)

This was a more personal look at Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief that contains interesting home movies of Hitchcock. It is revealed that the director liked vacationing in the south of France along with other relevant details. This piece is slightly less informative but remains of interest to fans.

Unacceptable Under the Code: Film Censorship in America – (11:49)

This was an interesting short about the history of the production code and how it affected To Catch a Thief.

A Night with the Hitchcocks – (23:22)

A Night with the Hitchcocks might be the most tragic omission. Dr. Drew Casper hosts a Q&A session with Patricia Hitchcock and Mary Stone at the University of Southern California. Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughter discuss the more personal aspects of the director’s life.

Edith Head: The Paramount Years – (13:44)

This featurette has been a staple of Paramount’s home video releases (and for good reason). It discussed the fabulous costume designer, Edith Head. It had special relevance since To Catch a Thief was Head’s favorite of the films that she worked on.

If You Love To Catch Thief, You’ll Love this Interactive Travelogue

This was essentially a set of short clips discussing the various locations used in the film. Footage from To Catch a Thief was used to illustrate the information.

Photo Galleries

There were quite a few production photos and promotional materials included as a kind of slide show.

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Final Words:

To Catch a Thief is gorgeous beyond description and notably risqué in its elegant wit and humor. Scholars often write the film off as “lesser” Hitchcock (which is certainly the case), but the film enjoyed a good deal of success upon its release. It is true that this film does not have the depth that films like Vertigo enjoy, but it is solid entertainment and required viewing.

Frankly, it deserves better treatment on Blu-ray than this release. It is our recommendation that those who do not already own the previous Blu-ray should purchase that edition of the film, and those who already own it should rest easy in the knowledge that this new edition isn’t much of an upgrade. In fact, it isn’t an upgrade at all. It is a significant downgrade.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

André Bazin (Hitchcock contre Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, October 01, 1954)

Staff Writer (To Catch a Thief, Harrison’s Reports, July 16, 1955)

Bosley Crowther (To Catch a Thief, New York Times, August 05, 1955)

Staff Writer (Royal Film Show: Mr. Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief, The Times, November 01, 1955)

Alfred Hitchcock (The Woman Who Knows Too Much, McCall’s, March 1956)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

Patrick McGilligan (Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s, 1997)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock, 2001)

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

Hilary Radner (To Catch a Thief: Light Reading on a Dark Topic, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

John Billheimer (Hitchcock and the Censors, 2019)

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TCAT - One Sheet

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Book Interview: Hitchcock’s California – Vista Visions from the Camera Eye

Hitchcock's California (Small Cropped)

Publisher: Middlebrow Books

Release Date: July 01, 2020

Robert Jones (Small)

Robert Jones

A Conversation with Robert Jones

Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye” celebrates (and re-creates) images that evoke scenes from many of the great director’s most famous films—including Notorious, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and a great many more classics. It was a labor of love for Robert Jones (the book’s primary creator) and a treat for Alfred Hitchcock’s fans. Jones’s excellent location photography is supplemented by photographs created by Aimee Sinclair that re-create memorable scenes from “Hitch’s” greatest movies and commentary by Dan Auiler (author of “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” and “Hitchcock’s Notebooks“).

Alfred Hitchcock Master is honored to have had the opportunity to talk to Robert Jones, Aimee Sinclair, and Dan Auiler about their incredible new book:

AHM: How were you introduced to Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and why do his films appeal to you?

Robert Jones: I was introduced to Hitchcock when I first saw Psycho. I was only nine, and it scared the daylights out of me!

Psycho House (SMALL)

This photograph was taken by Robert Jones at the infamous Bates House set at Universal Studios in Universal City on June 2017.

His films appeal to me because he defined the suspense genre. I don’t mean this in an academic sense: His films are seldom “dated.” You chew your fingernails for the exact same reason while watching Robert Walker retrieve his cigarette lighter in 1951 as you do in 2019. Strangers on a Train is just as suspenseful then as it is now. Also, Hitchcock is the same director in nearly every one of his movies. Each film builds on the previous, and is building up to the next. He truly is an “auteur.” You may find it hard to believe that the director of Champagne is the same guy who directed Family Plot, but only because of the artifice of the silent movie, and the panoply of acting affectations that go with pre-talkie movies, as well as all the technical advances that occurred subsequently. Also, he hadn’t yet cemented his “Master of Suspense” reputation (although, you can imagine that the director of The Lodger would go on to direct so many great suspense thrillers). But you can instantly get that the director of The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest, and Family Plot is one and the same—each are indelibly “Hitchcock.” That consistent quality carries through on most of his films. You aren’t left with the feeling that anyone else could have directed them.

AHM: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock film? Why is this your favorite?

Robert Jones: Vertigo, because I consider it the most perfect work of art ever created by Western civilization. I truly do. The photography, the settings, the colors, the wardrobe, Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score. It’s so beautiful, so heartbreakingly perfect, it’s not only a movie—it’s its own world. And, you get sucked into it, and don’t want to leave. One can see why James Stewart becomes obsessed with Kim Novak, because so do we. I can think of no more perfect expression of the Pygmalion myth than Vertigo. “But, she’s an illusion,” you might say. Well then, can you think of a single instance in which an “illusion” seems so real? This is why Vertigo works, on a very visceral level. It addresses every unattainable love we’ve ever fallen for—because it so vividly captures that fleeting moment in which she has been attained. Anyone who’s ever been engrossed by an all-consuming passion for another is a sucker for a movie like Vertigo, because, like Stewart, you don’t ever want to let go and have to leave.

SCREENSHOT - Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Golden Gate Bridge (SMALL)

Robert Jones took this beautiful photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge that recalls one of the most iconic scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

AHM: Is there also a least favorite?

Robert Jones: My least favorite would be either Rich and Strange or Waltzes from Vienna. These pictures definitely have their moments, but by-and-large, they’re just kind of asterisks in Hitchcock’s output. Of his later films, it would have to be either Torn Curtain or Topaz—for the movies they could have been. Torn Curtain, if Bernard Herrmann’s incendiary music had never been so injudiciously dismissed, and Topaz, if Hitchcock had kept his nerve, and left the riveting duel scene in the release prints.

AHM: I actually had a similar question for Ms. Sinclair. You mentioned in the book that you were fairly new to Alfred Hitchcock’s work when you signed on to this project. I am wondering if discovering his work has altered your perception of cinema in any way.

Aimee Sinclair: Discovering Hitchcock’s work through this project definitely altered my perception of cinema in many ways. I can see Hitchcock mirrored in the way many movies are made these days, through the dynamics of film, and how they’re acted. Watching his movies was like watching an evolution in cinema in and of itself, from his black-and-white Rebecca film to a couple of my favorites, Vertigo and Family Plot. I can see Hitchcock’s style throughout those films, but the way he delivers it and how he pushes cinematography to its limits to evoke a multitude of feelings from his audience, set the standards for movie-goer’s expectations.

AHM: Let’s talk about “Hitchcock’s California.” What can fans expect to find within the pages of your book?

Robert Jones: They can expect to be drawn into the Hitchcockian universe. From the first page to the last, the reader will have the feeling of this book as a companion piece to Alfred Hitchcock’s motion pictures during the height of his artistic powers, particularly Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie.

The main section is a portfolio of eighty panoramic photographs of California locations Hitchcock used in his most of his American productions. They’re an homage to VistaVision, which was Paramount’s widescreen process Hitchcock used in many of his films in the 1950s. And, although we live in the digital age, every one of these photographs was shot on 35mm film.

Another feature of the book is “Souvenirs of a Killing,” a series of seventeen scene recreations from Hitchcock’s movies created by photographer Aimee Sinclair. These are also on film, but most of them were shot on medium format film. We used these photographs to set the tempo between the book’s essays, main portfolio, and interview. Many of them are MacGuffins, and really work as stand-alone photos—kind of like movie posters—that pull the book together.

Suspicion - Aimee Sinclair

Aimee Sinclair contributes photographs that re-create iconic moments from various Hitchcock films in a series entitled “Souvenirs of a Killing.”

AHM: Okay, that leads me to my next question for Ms. Sinclair. What challenges did the “Souvenirs of a Killing” photographs present you with, and how did you manage to come up with all of the necessary materials required to pull them off?

Aimee Sinclair: Where do I even start? “Souvenirs of a Killing” had a lot of challenges that both Robert and I, as well as my very generous models—my siblings—had to overcome. I think two of the big challenges were distance and setup. I live in Indiana, and Robert lives in Minnesota. This was a big challenge for me because I wanted to give Robert the results that we both desired for the book, but when you’re relying on phone calls, video chats, and screen shots to accomplish something, it can get tricky and frustrating. Robert, however, was always very patient and extremely precise about what he wanted out of a photo. Because of this, I was able to get clear directions of what needed to be done for the photos.

The second challenge was setup. Without a proper studio, there were a few times that my siblings and I had to get creative for shots. I remember doing the Dial “M” For Murder shot and my sister having to lay halfway off her bed backwards, with her arm at just the right angle to get the lighting on the scissors the way we wanted, so we would get that little bit of glare – yet, keep the background dark. That is definitely hard to do with one light, set back in through hallway, into a bedroom, to cut across the scissors laterally, without illuminating my background. As far as materials go, Robert was again the diligent party who knew exactly what he wanted and spared no expense ordering each piece specifically for each of the shots to replicate the movie screenshots perfectly. His children, Evan and Sarah, were also amazing help because they painted all the backdrops for Robert to photograph on film and insert digitally after both sets of film had been developed.

AHM: Another section of the book is called “Persistence of Visions.”

Robert Jones: The title is an allusion to the illusion that when we’re watching a motion picture that we’re seeing a continuous flow of motion, when we’re really seeing a series of images rapidly projected. This is the section of the book where I am interviewed by Dan Auiler (a noted Hitchcock author). We discuss how the project came to be, Hitchcock’s artistic vision, and how he worked memorable locations into his pictures. We had fun with it—it was a real conversation between two guys who are really enthusiastic about Hitchcock, but we didn’t want it to seem dry and detached. So, if we veered off topic (talking about Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, or John Huston, for example) it’s still on-topic, because this was the time period in which Hitchcock operated. He didn’t exist in a vacuum.

Dan Auiler: Robert had brought me in fairly early, in the fall of 2014, and I have to say I never wavered in my belief that this was a great project. Robert is a great photographer and an expert on Hitchcock in ways that I’m envious of. My favorite photographs are certainly the Vertigo material, for obvious reasons.

AHM: How did you arrive at the idea for this book, and what challenges did you face in order to make it a reality?

Robert Jones: The idea for the book sort of just came to me. I am always working on many different photo projects, documentaries as well as pictorial essays. Hitchcock’s California falls into the latter category. This particular idea came to me as I was photographing a boat cutting across Bodega Bay one dusky August evening in 2014. I thought to myself, “Has a photographer ever done a photo essay on the California locations Alfred Hitchcock used in his movies?” It had never been done before, not in a comprehensive way. Photographer Cindy Bernard had made recreations of scenes, but in a limited series. The authors of Footsteps in the Fog limited their very thorough book to the San Francisco Bay area, but the photography in it was strictly limited to documenting the myriad places related to the text; its intent was not artistic in nature.

Night Boat (SMALL)

The snapshot that started it all: “I was photographing a boat cutting across Bodega Bay one dusky August evening in 2014…”

I realized that I had better be able to deliver photographs that would be able to stand up to the original movies. Movies, by the way, that were some of the most beautiful and technically challenging ever photographed. So, immediately, I understood what a daunting undertaking I had ahead of me.

The challenges I had mostly had to do with the fact I live in Minnesota. If I lived in California, I could have wrapped up photography within a year, easily, going out on weekends to shoot. Instead, I made many trips over a four-year period, so each trip had to be mapped out to hit certain spots at the right time of day so I’d have the right lighting.

Other challenges came into play when Aimee and I were working on the “Souvenirs” photographs. Getting sweaters knitted, license plates stamped exactly to specification, finding the right hound’s tooth blazer, green ink blotter, and even Western Union telegram blanks—it was a lot of legwork getting this all done, and done on time, but we did.

Ironically, the one area which I thought would present the largest challenges didn’t. My first choices for writing the introduction and afterword to Hitchcock’s California were actor Bruce Dern and biographer Dorothy Herrmann—and both of them were very professional, and pleasant to work with. They both lent their own unique perspectives—Bruce on working with Alfred Hitchcock personally, and Dorothy growing up with her composer father Bernard Herrmann—which worked really well in keeping with the “Hitchcock Universe” premise, as Dan Auiler identified it.

AHM: It’s an interesting idea for a book—especially since Alfred Hitchcock isn’t known for his location work. If anything, his films are sometimes criticized for being too artificial due to his preference for studio work. Did Hitchcock use locations differently than other directors?

Robert Jones: I don’t necessarily think Hitchcock used locations any differently to how his contemporaries used them. Realize that he worked during the height of the studio system. By the time Hitchcock arrived, the major studios had already created this huge infrastructure of sound stages, permanent sets, and backlots, on which almost all the pictures were shot. Warner Bros. had a huge ranch for outdoor shooting, for example. The movie industry used the Alabama Hills, outside of Lone Pine, in Inyo County, as a naturally majestic backdrop for its Westerns and films of many other genres—Hitch used it in Saboteur, a 1942 movie that criss-crosses the United States.

It wasn’t until the breakdown of the studio system that you saw a newer generation of directors “open up” their movies in a radically different way, by shooting more, or primarily, on location. The best examples from that period are John Cassavetes and Dennis Hopper; Hopper really revolutionized on-location movie-making with Easy Rider.

Outside of Westerns, the only American film I can recall that really used a location in a subtle, but substantial way, was Orson Welles, when he turned Venice, California, into his set for Touch of Evil in 1957. Coincidentally, that was the same year Hitchcock used San Francisco and San Juan Bautista roughly the same way in Vertigo.

I would say that he doesn’t go overboard like some directors. In Vertigo he uses two California locations for major set pieces: The Golden Gate Bridge, and the bell tower (which doesn’t exist in reality) at the Mission San Juan Bautista. There is a sequence in which Jimmy Stewart tails Kim Novak’s Jaguar, driving down the vertiginous streets of San Francisco. Just a block up the hill on the very street where Stewart’s character’s house sits—Lombard Street—is the famous “crooked street,” a section that zigs and zags downhill amidst terraced gardens. Needless to say, Hitch didn’t use this section of road in Vertigo. To have done so would have broken the suspense and turned the scene into a needless set piece.

Would Hitchcock have used that stretch of road? Yes: If it was integral to the movie. Take Stewart out of that vehicle and replace him with an inebriated Cary Grant, and absolutely I can see Hitch using that crooked street—for Roger Thornhill to careen recklessly down. But, as we know, Vertigo is not North by Northwest!

AHM: You mentioned that all of the book’s photos were shot on 35mm film. Why was it so important to you to shoot these images on film, and how did it change the way you approached the photographs found in this book?

Robert Jones: It’s important to me, because to me, it’s not a film if you’re watching a digital projection of a digital motion picture. Film is the medium. If film is not used, in even one step of the moviemaking process, then how can it be even called a “film”? If every step is captured and projected digitally, then what you’re watching is a glorified video. It’s not “film.”

It didn’t change how I approached the photography in this book one iota. I’m a holdout, one of a dying breed of photographers who still works exclusively with actual film. In this case, 35mm film. I shot it on the Hasselblad Xpan panoramic camera, which is very much akin to Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen motion picture camera. Many of the actual rolls of film I used have been sitting in my freezer nearly twenty years: The first exposure I shot was on long-expired Kodak Vericolor III print film, in 2009 (the eucalyptus grove along U.S. 101 in San Benito County; the film expired in 1997). The exposures are grainy, but the grain gives the shots character. When I threw myself into this project five years later, I chose Agfa-Gevaert, Fujifilm, Ilford, and Kodak Professional films that I felt captured the mood or feel of certain movies.

AHM: Actually, the switch to digital is somewhat depressing. I’m glad that it exists, but I don’t like that it has become the go-to medium. The fact is that movies have lost a certain dream-like quality that is extremely beautiful (and sometimes haunting). VERTIGO would be a radically different film if it had been shot on digital cinema cameras (even if the compositions were exactly the same.) The same can be said of a great many films. What’s more, going to see movies in a theater is a different experience now. It just doesn’t feel the same. I also think that the photochemical process forces filmmakers to make certain decisions that many recent filmmakers simply aren’t making. In any case, it is difficult not to wonder what Hitchcock would think of the dominance of digital.

Robert Jones: I cannot surmise what exactly Alfred Hitchcock would think of it all. So, I won’t. What I will say is here is a director who used painted backdrops considerably as late as 1964 in Marnie. This, right after making the most technically advanced motion picture ever made, The Birds, just the year before. There are shots in The Birds you would never even think were special effects shots (for an in-depth study of how Robert Burks, Ub Iwerks, Albert Whitlock, and Ray Berwick combined their respective talents to create the visual world of The Birds, read Camille Paglia’s monograph she wrote on it for the British Film Institute). Hitchcock did not abandon the methods he learnt for staging and photographing motion pictures, merely because they were no longer in vogue. Dan Auiler makes the observation in our book that Hitchcock’s 1953 film I Confess is the most influenced by his early training in Weimar Germany. He used lighting schemes more at home with Fritz Lang’s or F.W. Murnau’s films from the 1920s, which cinematographers in the 1950s were using a flatter tonal range that was more documentary in its feel, relying less on backlighting than they did in the 1940s.

That said, even experiencing digital projections of film originals is a bit off-putting. That is because our minds perceive the “flicker” of cellulose acetate projections differently to how we sense the “rolling” images of a video or television projection, which is what digital theater is. When I saw Universal’s 4K digital “restoration” of Vertigo last year in San Francisco, for the 60th anniversary screening, it was gorgeous. But, it could not hold a candle to the 70mm print I saw projected of the actual restoration Robert Harris and James Katz did of Vertigo in 1996. The sheer beauty of that print was something akin to viewing the stained glass in the Notre Dame Cathedral. I still shoot on E-6 transparency film; it’s the closest thing there is to motion picture print film. Viewing slides on a light table is very much like viewing small vignettes of stained glass. Digital will never be able to recreate the imperfect perfection of that.

Take what is arguably the most famous portrait of the second half of the twentieth century, Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl. It is not so sublimely beautiful solely because of its subtle lighting, and lovely subject. It was also shot on Kodachrome slide film, and one can sense the translucence of the original slide, even when viewing a four-color halftone-screened print of it. In film, the medium is, to a great extent, the message.

AHM: Did this project change the way you think about the director’s work or about the way that he used locations in his films?

Robert Jones: Yes, on both accounts. There’s a line from Sunset Boulevard, in which William Holden plays a B-picture screenwriter: “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.” The same could be said for how a picture is filmed. We assume that a crew just sets up its cameras, microphones, and lighting and sound equipment on location, and films a scene. But, in watching the original movies—paying close attention to detail—I realized what intricate work it was piecing so many different types of shots together in order to make a scene appear seamless. The scene of Kim Novak jumping into San Francisco Bay in Vertigo is a perfect example of this. You have an establishing shot of Stewart’s car following hers. Then, though a series of rear-projection process shots, insert shots, special effect shots photographed in “the tank,” and location shots, Hitchcock, cinematographer Robert Burks, cameraman Leonard South, and process photographer Farciot Edouart created the illusion that the viewer is seeing an uninterrupted sequence filmed in a single location.

What that did was make me especially aware of how a movie studio’s crew works as a team, in order to realize the director’s vision. In his introduction, Bruce Dern mentions that Hitchcock’s genius was that he knew every single person’s name and job on the set. But, in order for Hitchcock’s genius to shine, it had to be fleshed out by these dozens of cast and crew members. That’s a very special kind of camaraderie, like an Army unit’s.

AHM: As a die-hard Hitchcock fanatic, your photos make me want to visit a lot of these locations. I’m really envious. What was it like to visit the same locations that were immortalized by Hitchcock on celluloid? Do you have a favorite location? Why was this your favorite?

Robert Jones: What was it like? It’s like, in most cases, a sort of calm comes over you. “I found it, I’m here.” Dan Auiler said “You can sense Hitchcock’s ghost.” So, I had that in the front of my mind. That sort of reverence pianists have when playing a Brahms or Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Meaning, you’d better have the chops to pull it off, otherwise you’ll look disingenuous. The phrase “a tough act to follow” passed through my brain’s transom more than once—I had to be like Arthur Rubinstein, and rise to the occasion.

My favorite location of all was the folded hills outside of Gorman, a lonely spot where Janet Leigh parks her automobile to get a catnap in Psycho. It just felt the truest, and the most purely untouched. It hadn’t “aged” been “updated” or become a tourist spot. It was just as Hitchcock’s crew had found it, so when I photographed it, I didn’t feel I had to change anything about the composition or framing. It was what the Ansel Adams f/64 crowd would call a “Zen moment.” Which is funny, because I didn’t get the same feeling at the Big Basin and Muir Woods redwoods parks, because they were so overrun by tourists.

SCREENSHOT - Gorman Post Road, Gorman, CA

A scene from Psycho that was shot on Gorman Post Road in Gorman, CA.

Gorman Post Road, Gorman, CA - May 2016 (SMALL)

This image was taken by Robert Jones in May 2016 at Gorman Post Road in Gorman, CA. It hasn’t changed much since Marion Crane stopped here to rest in one of Hitchcock’s immortal scenes from Psycho.

AHM: It’s remarkable just how little some of these locations have changed over the years. For example, some of the locations from SABOTEUR don’t seem much different in your photos than they appeared in the film! Were these places instantly recognizable upon arrival? This may seem like a silly question, but sometimes you don’t recognize a location until it is pointed out to you.

Robert Jones: You’re quite right about the Alabama Hills, actually. I knew which rock formations this otherworldly place had that I wanted to photograph. Finding them was a little harder. Fortunately, a Lone Pine resident helped me to locate them, and they were instantly recognizable, mainly because I had seen them in so many other movies. The director who most memorably exploited these unique rocks was Ida Lupino, in her 1952 thriller, The Hitch-Hiker, for RKO.

AHM: The panoramic photos of certain SABOTEUR locations make me wish that he was shooting VistaVision in the 1940s. I think that the film could have benefited from the process. Of course, I understand that the process didn’t even exist at that time. It was formed after the advent of television to lure people back into the cinemas.

Robert Jones: Your observation is quite prescient. When I photographed locations from these earlier films (Rebecca, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Shadow Of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, Under Capricorn, and Dial “M” for Murder), I had to deal with the technical challenge of shooting them “widescreen,” but doing so in a way that didn’t take the reader outside of the experience of viewing those motion pictures.

Certainly, there is more information on the sides of the photographs, but I kept Billy Wilder’s sarcastic observation about CinemaScope in the front of my mind. Wilder said the widescreen process was the ideal format for a movie showing “two dachshunds kissing.” What he was getting at was that the aspect ratio lent itself to ridiculously elongated compositions, if the director of photography wasn’t paying too close attention. So, I tried to make the compositions not appear as though they’d been squeezed out of a pastry tube.

Alabama Hills (near Lonepine) 2016 (SMALL)

One of several photographs taken by Jones at Alabama Hills (near Lonepine) in 2016. It is one of the locations used in Saboteur.

AHM: There’s so many terrific photographs in the book. Are you partial to any of them? Which are your favorites?

Robert Jones: Thanks, I really appreciate the compliment. There are so many of them, each for their own reasons. I would say the one singular photo is the cover shot. I was photographing Bodega Bay, futilely attempting to get a shot of seagulls flocking into the frame. They absolutely would not cooperate. This one gentlemanly gull, however, landed right in front of my tripod, and politely ate each breadcrumb I put before him, and then, when he was finished, stood in profile long enough so I could get a portrait of him with the bay and the hills as the perfect backdrop. He did this five or six more times—he was so patient! When I got the film back from the lab, I noticed how the seagull looked so much like Alfred Hitchcock himself: The rotund figure, his unflappable visage looking so serious, yet sardonic at the same time. I immediately knew this would be the cover shot.

Seagull and Bodega Bay, October 2014 (SMALL)

A Seagull and Bodega Bay (October 2014): The Cover Shot.

Others were shots that you think you saw in Hitchcock’s movies—but didn’t. The back cover shot of “Madeleine Elster” wearing Edith Head’s gray suit, holding a nosegay of flowers against the background of the Golden Gate Bridge is a perfect recreation of the same shot in Vertigo. Except it’s not! Madeleine wasn’t wearing gray in that scene. Same with the shot of “Norman Bates” stalking the Bates Motel parking lot from Psycho, butcher knife in hand, at Universal Studios. Remember: “Mother” held the knife, not Norman.

Other shots are my favorites for the technical challenges involved: The photo of seagulls swooping in on Bodega Bay from The Birds was a photo montage, pieced together by Steve White in Photoshop; he took Aimee Sinclair’s gulls from Ormond Beach, Florida, and wove them into the picture so perfectly, you’d never suspect they weren’t Sonoma County residents. Another was the exposure I made of Father of the Forest at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. In the scene in Vertigo, shafts of light stream through the mist between breaks in the trees, it’s so sublimely beautiful. But, I didn’t have that kind of subtle fog going on by the time we arrived. My kids created some impromptu mist by running around in circles on the dirt trail. They kicked up so much dust, it looked as though it were mist! One second, they’re running around like Wyle E. Coyote; the next, they’re gazing in awe at the redwoods!

Father of the Forrest, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, near Boulder Creek (August 2016)

Father of the Forrest, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, near Boulder Creek (August 2016)

Artistically, my favorite is the panoramic exposure of San Francisco from my perch on Twin Peaks. It was of crucial importance to get this shot as close to the movie as possible: It marks the transition of Vertigo from Barbara Bel Geddes visiting Scotty at the mental hospital to a beautiful, bittersweet panning shot of the city where Jimmy Stewart will have to put the pieces of his life together. I needed to simultaneously capture the mist coming off the bay, the subtle tones of the hills outlying the bay, and the brilliant whites and rich colors of San Francisco’s buildings. It just had to match! I had run out of film and, on my drive back to San Francisco from Bodega Bay, I called Aimee Sinclair in a panic. I explained what I needed the film to do for this particular shot, and asked her to find me a camera shop in the city while I drove. She laughed and told me I didn’t need a camera shop, just a drugstore or supermarket. She explained why Fuji’s Superia 200 consumer film was perfect for just that sort of lighting situation. And, once I got the negatives back from the lab, she was absolutely right—thanks to Aimee, I nailed that shot!

View of San Francisco from Twin Peaks, May 2016 (SMALL)

This view of San Francisco was taken by Robert Jones with Fuji’s Superia 200 film in 2016.

AHM: Just out of curiosity, why did the Fuji’s Superia 200 work so well for that shot? I am interested in such technical revelations.

Robert Jones: Fuji’s Superia 200 consumer-branded film, is the end result of decades of research the Japanese photography company has made in constantly improving its film emulsions. Their consumer film of today, for instance, is technically superior to its own professional film from the 1990s. Superia has a very wide exposure latitude, which means how many different levels of lighting it can capture within a single exposure. Because Superia uses multiple layers in its emulsion, it can accurately render about five stops of lighting without any noticeable drop off of accuracy in the film’s tonal range. In other words, it “sees” a scene with different levels of light the way the human eye does. Now, Fuji’s professional film 400H, would have been marginally preferable to Superia, but the feel of the color would have been slightly off. For some reason, that Fuji drugstore film captured the feel of the colors exactly as the Technicolor IB print of Vertigo did 61 years ago.

AHM: One of the photographs of Point Lobos State Park reminds me of the opening of REBECCA (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”). What scene from the film was shot at this location?

Robert Jones: You’re spot on. It’s the movie’s first scene, with Joan Fontaine’s narration, right after the opening titles. Fortunately, the roads at Point Lobos lie beneath so much canopy of trees, they naturally obscure the light. I grabbed that shot with the camera on the tripod, so I could slow down the exposure, by placing a blue filter in front of the lens. With the swaying leaves, it created a dreamy, gauzy feel. It feels like a night shot, which is what I set out to do. Shooting day for night was often used in Hollywood productions of the day.

Point Lobos State Park, CA (SMALL)

Point Lobos State Park, CA: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

AHM: I was also wondering if the photograph taken at the Arboretum in Arcadia, CA was the location of Alicia Huberman’s “accidental” meeting with Alexander Sebastian on horseback in NOTORIOUS. Is this correct, or was some other scene shot here? 

Robert Jones: Again, you are absolutely right! It’s a bit overgrown with foliage now, but it’s the same trail, and—as you correctly guess it, still recognizable.

SCREENSHOT - The Arboretum, Arcadia, CA

This scene from Notorious was shot at the Arboretum in Arcadia, CA.

The Arboretum, Arcadia, CA - 2016 (SMALL)

This photograph was taken by Robert Jones at the Arboretum at Arcadia, CA in 2016.

AHM: You made a comment in the book that mirrors my own personal feelings during the conversation with Mr. Auiler. He said, “Many directors aren’t imitating Hitchcock so much as they’re a caricature of what they think is Hitchcockian.” I’ve heard countless filmmakers comparing their movies to Hitchcock’s or describing them as “Hitchcockian,” but this only betrays their complete misunderstanding of his work. They don’t seem to understand how he builds suspense, and I sometimes question if they have even seen his work. Where do you think these directors go wrong, and why is there so much misunderstanding as to what it means for a film to be Hitchcockian?

Robert Jones: I think most of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that for generations now, the studios’ marketing arms use “Hitchcock” and “Hitchcockian” with such disregard to facts. It’s basically a come-on, a sales pitch.

Let’s talk about directors, then. I think this is because so many of them treat filmmaking as an intellectual pursuit first-and-foremost. But, it becomes a self-defeating exercise in futility. The best way not to make a “Hitchcockian” picture is to try to make one. But, there is only one Hitchcock. The director’s mind, like Norman Bates’ mind, thus becomes bifurcated: The director has to be Hitchcock and not-Hitchcock simultaneously. No wonder their movies seem so schizophrenic!

Of the best movies Hitchcock never directed, that could be classified as “Hitchcockian,” only one of them (Blue Velvet, dir: David Lynch, 1985) can be regarded as “artsy.” But, David Lynch has his own idiosyncratic genius—never for a moment does the audience get the notion he makes movies in order to be compared to any other director. His films stand on their own two feet.

But, movies like Charade (Stanley Donen, 1964), The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1984), The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1997), and Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997) were made by directors out to make movies. The artiness is almost non-existent, because the primary focus of these movies was the story itself, and putting it on the screen for maximum visual and emotional impact. These pictures’ art—like the best special effects sequences—consisted in concealing their overt artistic effects, and instead concentrating on the art of capturing and holding their audiences’ interest.

Today, the story gets buried beneath so many affectations by directors who seem trapped in film school. I saw a movie recently, in which every shot was a trick shot, a gimmick shot, an overhead shot, a slow-motion shot, or an extreme close-up. The soundtrack was equally cliched—was it really necessary to magnify the sound of the protagonist’s beating heart so often to communicate the pressure he was working under?

The movie’s story was excellent, as was the acting—but all that got buried under layer after layer of a murky cobalt-blue color scheme, CGI and typographical overkill, and the need of the director to impress. It was so ridiculous! The story was subordinated to the movie’s artifices. This was not even a suspense picture, or action picture. It was a historical picture—and it rightly flopped at the box office.

I think that directors need to look at what make Hitchcock so unique. It was that he subordinated the motion picture’s techniques to the service of telling amazing stories. Look at the director whose films Hitchcock consistently admired, who also happens to be my favorite director, Billy Wilder. The exposition of Wilder’s movies are more along mise-en-scene narration lines than Hitchcock’s, but it would be a mistake to characterize Hitchcock as a director who solely used montage. He didn’t. Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes are quite similar, in how they unfold, to Hitchcock pictures. With some editorial and camera changes, they each could easily have been Hitchcock pictures.

That’s the key, I believe, to why the term “Hitchcockian” is so elusive for so many directors. They see him as a gimmicky director who used a glossy bag of tricks to get his movies across. He was anything but. By fixating on technique, they overlook his masterful storytelling abilities, the wonderful plotting, the finely crafted dialogue, the glances, gestures, and body language Hitchcock employs that say so much more than dialogue alone. This is the storytelling in which Alfred Hitchcock excelled. Take away the story, and all you’ve got left is a highlight reel.

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock – British International Pictures Collection

BIP - Blu-ray Set Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: November 26, 2019

Region: Region A

Length:

The Ring – 01:45:44
The Farmer’s Wife – 01:52:12
Champagne – 01:45:37
The Manxman – 01:40:36
The Skin Game – 01:22:34

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English (The Skin Game)

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Ring – 23.98 Mbps
The Farmer’s Wife – 24.99 Mbps
Champagne – 17.00 Mbps
The Manxman – 16.99 Mbps
The Skin Game – 16.99 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray

British International Pictures Logo

“[British International Pictures] rapidly gathered assets—a couple of distribution companies, cinemas, subsidiary production companies, and Elstree film studios. It also signed up as much talent as it could back up its claims to eminence in the newly secure-seeming British film industry. Most importantly, it acquired Alfred Hitchcock, who was prized away from Michael Balcon and Gainsborough with promises of new freedom, bigger and better budgets—a considerable inducement since Gainsborough’s finances were painfully modest and Hitch had not been happy with either of his assignments since The Lodger.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978) 

When Hitchcock joined British International Pictures in June of 1927, he fully expected to be able to make ambitious films of his own choosing.

“Hitchcock was envisioning various future projects, including ‘two epic films dealing with the Mercantile Marine and the English railways.’ There was also loose talk of Hitchcock’s chronicling England’s general strike of 1926—a ten day nationwide stoppage, generally regarded as a historic opportunity and dismal defeat for English labor—in a film that would depict ‘the fistfights between strikers and undergraduates, pickets, and all authentic drama of the situation,’ in his words. Already in pre-production, according to B.I.P. was an experiential ‘film symphony’ called ‘London,’ which Hitchcock had written in collaboration with Walter Mycroft… Hitchcock’s ‘London’ would offer a heaping slice of humanity.

None of these experimental, populist, or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary Hitchcock pictures would ever be made. The director’s actual deal with B.I.P. included option clauses that hinges on his ability to churn out four B.I.P. productions a year, maintaining the staggering level of output he had managed in 1927. As fast as he was, Hitchcock couldn’t keep up that pace and hope to make the kind of films that called for studio to risk more time and expense…

…What Maxwell really wanted to do in the foreseeable future was to consolidate his English Audience. His twelve picture, three year deal with Hitchcock was part of a general speedup, and a studio policy that called for more—for cheaper—films to justify its overhead. Photographing English plays and books, with English actors, was front-office conservativism that took no account of Hitchcock’s higher aspirations. And so the next several years at Elstree, from 1928 to 1932, would prove the busiest of Hitchcock’s career, but also at times the least personal.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Luckily, his first film under this new contract was one that he chose himself. It was an original story by Hitchcock entitled The Ring.

The Ring - TITLE

The Ring (1927)

“You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The fact that Alfred Hitchcock took sole credit for the original story (a practice unique in his career) may hint at the director’s affinity for the project, but it may also be the result of a temporary falling out with Eliot Stannard. He had collaborated with the writer on all five of his previous films and would work with him again on his subsequent silent endeavors (with the notable exception of Blackmail). While Walter Mycroft is reported to have worked on the script, it is usually suggested that his contributions consisted of minimal touch-ups and advice on the film’s boxing sequences. In any case, the bulk of the script was left to Hitchcock (and most likely his wife Alma) after Stannard’s exit from the project.

Today, it may seem as if the film’s subject was an unusual choice for the director, but boxing wasn’t totally outside of the Hitchcock’s milieu.

“I was interested — I used to go to the Albert Hall. I think the thing, strangely enough, that fascinated me about boxing in those days was the English audience that would go all dressed up in black tie to sit around the ring. It wasn’t the boxing that fascinated me so much, although I was interested in the shop, all the details connected with it. Like pouring champagne over the head of the boxer at the thirteenth round, if he was going a bit groggy. You’d hear them uncork the champagne bottle and pour the whole bottle over his head. All that kind of thing I was interested in, and put it all in the picture.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s creative freedom extended to the film’s casting, and he exorcised this freedom by offering Lilian Hall-Davis the role of Mabel (a.k.a. “The Girl”). He had admired her work in a film entitled The Passionate Adventure and wanted very much to work with her. He decided to offer Carl Brisson the role of “One-Round Jack” as he was a former middleweight champion, and his rival in and out of the ring would be played by Ian Hunter despite his lack of boxing ability. In fact, Hitchcock used Hunter’s shortcomings as a fighter to good effect within the film:

“The high-spot of the picture was the last round of a boxing match. Brisson had to win. Brisson was a trained boxer. He was, actually, a boxer before he was an actor. Hunter was only an amateur. It was, incidentally, his first—and very successful—film.

On the day we were shooting this last round—the previous rounds had been photographed before with trick photography to speed up the effect by ‘under-cranking’ (turning the camera more slowly)—I ranged four cameras [a]round the set and told them to go all out. Ian went off to the local tavern with Gordon Harker. He lunched off bread and cheese and beer. How he must have regretted it!

I exploited Brisson’s knowledge of boxing. I told him to box as he would if it were a genuine match. So Brisson, with the eye of a practiced athlete, attacked Ian’s body. Every time he connected, Ian remembered the beer. It was a raging hot day. He was sweating like a bull. They fought on and on, Hunter swinging at Brisson’s handsome elusive face; Brisson plugging blow after blow to the mark; Hunter puffing, and blowing, and grunting with every smack he took.

Finally, I gave the signal for the last of it. Brisson was to knock out his opponent. He launched a blow at Hunter’s body. Hunter caught his breath with a gulp, that sort of gulp you give when a football catches you amidships. He swayed, tottered, sat down. He was congratulated on a brilliant piece of acting. I got some kudos for a good piece of direction. Actually, neither of us deserved any credit. I was not directing. Hunter was not acting. He was really ‘out.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Gordon Harker filled the role of Jack’s best friend and trainer.

“I found Gordon Harker on the stage, too. I was looking for a Cockney “second” for Carl Brisson in The Ring, and I happened one night to drop into Wyndham’s Theatre to see Edgar Wallace’s ‘The Ringer.’ Harker was playing a Cockney part, and I saw in him the very man I needed. Incidentally, it has always seemed to me to be rather a waste of Harker’s talents that he should almost invariably be cast as a Cockney. He is a brilliant character actor, and perhaps you’ll remember that I gave him the role of a Devon farmhand in The Farmer’s Wife. He made a very good job of it…” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

In addition to his role in the two aforementioned films, Harker would also appear in Champagne. It is clear that the director admired the actor’s work, and his performances in these silent efforts are incredibly entertaining. (The fact that he also appeared in Elstree Calling is also be significant, but the director preferred to downplay his participation in this project.)

The Ring would also mark the first time that Alfred Hitchcock worked with Jack Cox as his cinematographer.

“…It marked a clear division in the camera department between the Hitchcock films made at Gainsborough and those made at B.I.P. Cox was an ‘effects’ cameraman—an expert in ‘blurred images, overlays, and double exposures,’ in the words of [Duncan] Petrie… That was more important to Hitchcock than framing or lighting genius. Hitchcock really didn’t need compositional advice; his staging within the frame was always strongly in his mind, and annotated in the script. What Hitchcock wanted was a cameraman who would take a dare. And even veterans like Cox were sometimes taken aback by Hitchcock’s taunts and demands… Cameramen learned to trust Hitchcock’s instincts; he not only stipulated the setups, but, with his art training would whip out a sketch-pad, draw the image, and specify the focus…

…Starting with The Ring, Cox would photograph all ten of Hitchcock’s B.I.P. films during the prolific years between 1927 and 1932. Then, after an interval of several years, they would reunite on The Lady Vanishes. Eleven Hitchcock pictures: only Robert Burks, another virtuoso cameraman, whom Hitchcock found at Warner Bros. in America, would work with him more.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Unlike many of the director’s later efforts at British International Pictures, The Ring was given a reasonable budget and plenty of time to achieve Hitchcock’s intended vision. It was shot during the summer of 1927 (July and August), and the production was an incredibly smooth one. Cox’s adventurous spirit came in handy when it came time to shoot the film’s Albert Hall climax as the Schüfftan process was employed. This would blend live action footage with painted backgrounds, photographs, and miniatures.

The freedom that he was given during the production of The Ring resulted in a spike in the director’s creativity. He was working on a project that he was excited about, and this resulted in some very interesting visual touches.

“This is also the film in which I introduced a few notions that were widely adopted later on. For instance, to show the progress of a prize fighter’s career, we showed large posters on the street, with his name on the bottom. We show different seasons—summer, autumn, winter—and the name is printed in bigger and bigger letters on each of the posters. I took great care to illustrate the changing seasons: blossoming trees for the spring, snow for the winter, and so on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

This sort of transition may seem quaint by today’s standards, but filmmakers are still using similar techniques to show the passing of time in their films. A film director should be able to tell a story visually, and this is why Hitchcock is without equal. He is and has always been a visual storyteller. However, he later questioned some of his celebrated visual touches in The Ring.

“I must say that in recent years I have come to make much less use of obvious camera devices… The other day a journalist came to interview me, and we spoke about film technique. ‘I always remember,’ he said, ‘a little bit in one of your silent films, The Ring. The young boxer comes home after winning his fight. He is flushed with success—wants to celebrate. He pours out champagne all [a]round. Then he finds that his wife is out, and he knows at once that she is out with another man. At this moment, the camera cuts to a glass of champagne; you see a fizz of bubbles rise off it and there it stands untasted, going flat. That one shot gives you the whole feeling of the scene.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that sort of imagery might be quite good: I don’t despise it and still use it now and then. But is it always noticed?’ There was another bit in The Ring which I believe hardly anyone noticed.

The scene was outside a boxing-booth at a fair with a barker talking to the crowd. Inside the booth a professional is taking on all comers. He has always won in the first round. A man comes running out of the booth and speaks to the barker. Something unexpected has happened. Then a straight cut to the ringside: you see an old figure 1 being taken down and replaced with a brand new figure 2. I meant this single detail to show that the boxer, now, is up against someone he can’t put out in the first round. But it went by too quickly. Perhaps I might have shown the new Figure 2 being taken out of paper wrapping—something else was needed to make the audience see in a moment that the figure for the second round had never been used before.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

It is interesting to note that his criticism is focused on the issue of clarity. The audience was always on Hitchcock’s mind. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t flock to the theaters upon the film’s release despite a whirlwind of critical praise.

“…The picture had a succès d’estime, but it was not a commercial hit.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

His next film was also praised by most critics (and is still praised by many scholars), but it was often dismissed by Hitchcock.

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The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

The Farmer’s Wife, I would say, was again merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

With their working relationship patched-up and running efficiently, Eliot Stannard was back to work on the script of The Farmer’s Wife, and his adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the Eden Phillpotts play. This was always a source of regret for Hitchcock as he preferred more cinematic material. One assumes that the film was an assignment, and it is unclear how much freedom Hitchcock actually had over the production. Periodicals from the period suggest that Eden Phillpotts may have had as much (or more) control over the film as Hitchcock.

“I hear that the producers of the forthcoming film version of The Farmer’s Wife are searching diligently for real Devon ‘types,’ and that Mr. Eden Phillpotts is himself assisting them. He has also personally chosen the locations for the film.” –Staff Writer (The Farmer’s Wife, Western Morning News, September 16, 1927)

The original play was written by Phillpotts and premiered in London in 1924, and it would eventually be performed over 13,000 times on that stage before Laurence Olivier went on tour as the lead in 1926. Such success would have given the writer plenty of contractual authority. Even so, it is likely that the film’s director had a hand in the casting since both Lillian Hall-Davis and Gordon Harker appear in the film. In fact, much of what Hitchcock has said about the production concerns the actors (although, his comments aren’t specific to the film’s production):

“…This was in certain respects a tragic film, for tragedy came to two of the leading players in it. The star of the picture was Jameson Thomas. He had, of course, been in numerous films before this, and he was undoubtedly one of England’s most popular players. He is in Hollywood today, playing supporting roles. He left England to take his wife to California. She was very ill. The Californian sunshine seemed to offer the only hopes of a cure. So Jimmy Thomas packed up everything in this country and moved to Hollywood—in vain. His wife died in spite of the sacrifice.

Thomas’s leading lady in The Farmer’s Wife was Lillian Hall-Davis. She was an amazing girl. On the set she suffered from acute self-consciousness. She had an acute inferiority complex in regard to her ability to play certain parts, and I remember that she turned down an extremely good role because she wasn’t sure she could do it well enough. Actually, she could have played it with ease. Yet, in private life she was altogether a different person. She possessed a terrific personality and amazing vivacity. It was with the deepest regret that, two or three years ago, I read of her death in tragic circumstances.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Tragic indeed. Davis committed suicide on October 25, 1933. A neighbor named Herbert French found the actress with her head in the oven, a razor in her right hand, and a wound in her neck.

As for the film itself, we know that production commenced in October of 1927, and that Hitchcock shot much of it on location in Surrey and Devon, Somerset in order to capture an authentic countryside setting. Interestingly, the director enjoyed his visit to the rustic locations and would soon purchase a weekend retreat in Shamely Green as a result of his time there. The film’s camera work is also noteworthy:

“When the chief cameraman got sick, I handled the camera myself. I arranged the lighting, but since I wasn’t too sure of myself, I sent a test over to the lab. While waiting for the results, we could rehearse the scene. I did what I could, but it wasn’t actually very cinematic.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

During this same interview, the director claimed that he didn’t remember much about the film and seemed both detached from and disappointed in it. “There was too much dialogue,” he told Truffaut. “It was largely a title film… I know that filming that play stimulated my wish to express myself in purely cinematic terms.

Unfortunately, his assignments at B.I.P. would consist largely of stage adaptations that didn’t always allow the director’s cinematic ideas to flourish.

Champagne - TITLE

Champagne (1928)

According to most sources, Champagne originated with an idea by British International Pictures’ scenario editor and literary adviser Walter Mycroft.

“Someone had this idea, let’s make a film about champagne. And my thought was — it’s kind of a corny idea really — why don’t we do one about a little girl who works at Reims in the cellars and always watches the train go off carrying champagne. And then she eventually gravitated to the city and became a kind of whore and was put through the mill and eventually went back to her job, and then every time she saw champagne go out, she knew, ‘Well, that’s going to cause some trouble for somebody.’ That was scrapped. They thought it was much too, they didn’t use the word ‘highbrow,’ but, oh, that wasn’t entertainment. So we ended up with a hodge-podge of a story that was written as we went through the film and I thought it was dreadful.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Readers may remember running across Mycroft’s name earlier in this article as he would have collaborated with Hitchcock on a number of his earlier projects. Most sources agree that Hitchcock was enthusiastic about the hiring of Mycroft, who had previously worked as a journalist before joining BIP as the head of their story department in latter months of 1927. The director’s enthusiasm may have been due to the fact that the journalist was one of the founders of the Film Society. His own membership in the film society may have given him the erroneous idea that Mycroft would champion his ideas and secure him a certain amount of creative freedom. Unfortunately, this would not be the case at all, and his relationship with Mycroft would soon become somewhat antagonistic.

In fact, Champagne may have been the project that sealed their mutual loathing. His own ambitious ideas were cast aside for being uncommercial and potentially depressing after Betty Balfour—an incredibly popular British film star—signed on as the leading actress. After all, audiences didn’t want to see Britain’s biggest star being dragged through the trenches of a hard and apathetic universe. They wanted to laugh and enjoy her charismatic charm. Hitchcock had little choice but to re-write his gritty drama as a bubbly comedy of little consequence. The new script was rushed, and Hitchcock’s interest in the project evaporated.

Assistant cameraman, Alfred Roome, remembered that the film entered production without a finished script. This is, unfortunately, all too evident when one watches the finished film. Alfred Hitchcock tried to keep his spirits up by experimenting stylistically.

“…The opening and closing images, shot through a champagne glass, would become one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated effects [up to that point]. ‘I was the one who had to focus through the bottom of the glass,’ remembered assistant cameraman Roome. ‘Hitch had it made specially by a glass manufacturer who put a lens into the bottom of a giant champagne glass so we could shoot through it and get a clear picture of what was happening at the other end of the room. We all said it wouldn’t work. Most people said that of Hitch’s ideas, but they almost always did work.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Michael Powell—a man now known as one of the British cinema’s most brilliant directors—was hired as a stills photographer during the film’s production. He later remembered that Hitchcock wasn’t at all happy about Balfour’s casting and wasn’t pretending otherwise. In fact, he tried to keep Powell from shooting publicity images of the actress! This is undoubtedly due to the fact that he blamed her casting for the change in the project’s direction.

In any case, the director had plenty to distract him from his disappointment over the fact that this project was now merely an inconsequential assignment. An extremely personal project was also in the works, and he and Alma would eventually name her Patricia. Production on Champagne wrapped in July of 1928—and his only daughter would be born on the seventh of that same month.

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The Manxman (1929)

“The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

Some scholars would dispute the film’s place as Hitchcock’s final silent feature since his silent version of Blackmail is very much an indelible part of his filmography. However, this quote speaks volumes about the director’s own attitudes towards the project. To his mind, The Manxman was merely another B.I.P assignment that he was obliged to direct.

The Manxman, again, was a kind of old-fashioned story. An assignment, more or less. It was a domestic melodrama, you know, the illegitimate child and the brother and the judge—one of those things full of coincidences—the brother happens to be a lawyer and the poor girl gets involved with a fisherman and so on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

He would tell François Truffaut that the film was “a very banal picture” and lamented the fact that the story was taken from “a very well-known book by Sir Hall Caine” since the novel’s popularity made it necessary for him to “respect that reputation and that tradition.” Hitchcock preferred to simply take a basic idea from a source and build visually striking cinematic situations from that idea. In other words, he felt that the forced fidelity to Caine’s original novel resulted in a film that wasn’t entirely his own. (This was a feeling that he would have quite often during his time at B.I.P.)

It’s impossible not to agree with the director when he describes the story as old fashioned. The scenario seems clichéd and outdated when viewed today, but these handicaps don’t overwhelm the film. In fact, The Manxman is one of the director’s most beautiful silent efforts. Much of this is due to some incredible location shooting in various communities along the beautiful Cornish coast. (These locations largely stood in for the Isle of Man, but there was also some incidental shooting at the actual island.) Meanwhile, Anny Ondra’s performance is a heartbreaking testament to her talents as a silent actress.

In any case, his collaboration with Ondra on Blackmail would return the director to material that he could fully embrace.

The Skin Game - TITLE

The Skin Game (1931)

In fact, one might expect the success of Blackmail to put Alfred Hitchcock in a stronger position at Elstree, but he was still a contract director and was obligated to accept the assignments that were handed to him. He followed his first “talkie” with an incredibly faithful adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, but the director felt that the incredibly talky play didn’t allow him to tell the story cinematically. As a result, the film’s enormous critical success wasn’t particularly gratifying for Hitchcock. He felt that the success was O’Casey’s and not his own. While Murder! leaned more towards mystery than it did suspense, it did allow the director to exercise his creativity. Unfortunately, his following project would be yet another talky stage property.

“[The Skin Game] was taken from a play by John Galsworthy. I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The truth is probably more complex. Hitchcock himself listed Galsworthy’s work as a foundational influence on him, but one imagines that he would have been more at home adapting ‘Escape‘ as this would have fallen in line with his penchant for suspense yarns. What’s more, the playwright’s contractual control over his film adaptation limited Hitchcock’s own creative input:

“…Galsworthy, like O’Casey, had a B.I.P agreement that outlawed, in his words, ‘dialogue except what is written and passed by me, and no tampering with the play’s integrity.’ Hitchcock would be hemmed in on The Skin Game more than on Juno and the Paycock. Though he worked to open it up visually, he’d adhere very closely to the play—shooting most of the scenes with multiple cameras for a fluid soundtrack (they still ‘couldn’t cut sound in those days’).

Galsworthy felt strongly about casting, and he presented Hitchcock with a list of preferred actors, though his contract gave him no say in this matter. Yet in the end, the leads must have pleased the playwright. Edmund Gwenn had been the original Mr. Hornblower, the nouveau rich industrialist whose hard-driving tactics ignite a feud over a parcel of land between two families, one aristocratic and the other parvenu. Gwenn also played Hornblower in the silent film; now he would reprise his famous role for Hitchcock. And Helen Haye, another original cast member who had returned for the Anglo-Dutch silent, was back as snobby Mrs. Hillcrist. The rest was a mix of Hitchcock semi-regulars and actors under studio contract.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ursula Jeans & Phyllis Konstan

Ursula Jeans was originally cast in the role of Chloe Hornblower, but when Jeans needed an emergency operation for appendicitis on the eve of shooting, Hitchcock gave the role to Phyllis Konstam: “I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstom’s woebegone expression when I told her that we should have a tenth ‘take’ on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Hitchcock went on record about the difficulties he was having with his adaptation of The Skin Game during his publicity campaign for Murder!:

“It has been found that the technique demanded by the stage rarely lends itself to the screen…The more perfect the stage technique, the more difficult becomes anything like a faithful screen adaptation. Galsworthy’s brilliantly clever stagecraft in The Skin Game is giving us no end of trouble in finding the true screen equivalent.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Making Murder!, Cassell’s Magazine, August 1930)

One imagines that this is polite publicity speak for Hitchcock’s true opinion of his newest project as he was more direct in later interviews. “Photographed theatre, really,” he told Peter Bogdanovich. “I didn’t alter the Galsworthy play very much. It opened up a little bit more than Juno. Not too much, though.” He was able to apply his creativity to the film’s auction sequence. This scene finds a meek and mumbling auctioneer presiding over the frenzied bidding as the two rivaling families attempt to purchase the same piece of property. Hitchcock highlights the bidding with wild pans and quick cuts that place the viewer in the chaos of the scene. The audience experiences the sense of desperation that is at the heart of the scene. Both families need this property if they are to maintain their way of life.

John Galsworthy’s way of life was somewhat different than Alfred Hitchcock’s, but the director did enjoy his initial meeting with the playwright.

“In preparation for the film Hitch, still an avid playgoer …was invited down to week-end at Galsworthy’s country house. He found Galsworthy living in some style…surrounded by a large household. Hitch put his foot in it immediately. Mrs. Galsworthy asked him what kind of music he liked. ‘Wagner,’ replied Hitch, ‘he’s so melodramatic.’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Mrs. Galsworthy conclusively; ‘we like Bach.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

It was likely during this visit that the director attended a dinner party that was hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Galsworthy.

The Skin Game was responsible for the most cultured dinner party I ever attended and for one of the best malapropisms I have ever heard. The dinner party was at Mr. Galsworthy’s house. When we sat down, Galsworthy himself ‘set’ the subject for discussion. ‘Let us discuss,’ he said, ‘words. Words in relation to their meaning and in relation to their sound.’ One guest suggested the word ‘fragile’ as descriptive. Another advanced the opinion that the French ‘fragile’ was even more delicate in its sound. A third stressed the claims of crepuscular’ as being ‘filled with the nuance of the twilight.’ I sat amazed at the feeling the guests had for the sound-sense of words.

A course or so later, Mr. Galsworthy gave out another topic. ‘Let us discus,’ he said, ‘the various states of consciousness.’ Then he amplified the topic in answer to my question. ‘The states of consciousness are like stratified layers of earth. The crust is compete consciousness and the core is the subconscious. Between lie an infinite series of gradations of consciousness.’

That was my first contact with The Skin Game. Now for the contrast. Edmund Gwenn had to wear a toupee—a sort of hair wig—in the production. We got it from Clarkson’s. It cost three guineas. One day someone from the accounts, keeping an eagle eye on the pence, came rushing down. ‘Why go to Clarkson’s for a three guinea toupee?’ he asked angrily. ‘Do you think the firm is made of money? You can get one at Austin Reed’s for a guinea.’

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Have Austin Reed started a makeup department?’ ‘Makeup?’ said he. ‘I thought you were buying a tropical helmet!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

While The Skin Game is seen as little more than a mere footnote in the director’s filmography today, it wasn’t considered a failure at the time of its release. Actually, if the director would claim that it was one of the “most successful pictures” that he made during this period. The trouble was that the film’s strengths and weaknesses—or successes and failures—seemed to belong more to John Galsworthy than to Alfred Hitchcock. The film wasn’t a creative triumph for the director; it was merely an assignment that he was obliged to complete. In fact, Hitchcock’s treatment by British International Pictures was by now looking depressingly similar to the situation which had first prompted him to abandon Gainsborough.

The Ring - SS08

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber house their two Blu-ray discs in a standard blue case with a sleeve featuring a very young Alfred Hitchcock. The case is further protected by a cardboard slip sleeve that exhibits the same artwork. It’s an attractive package and an appropriate design for a release like this one.

BIP - Menu BIP - Menu 2

Both discs contain uniform menus that utilize the same photograph. They are attractive and easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

3 – 4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is probably best to start by saying that each of these five transfers are significant improvements over those seen on the previous Lionsgate (and Studio Canal) DVD editions. Grain is more natural looking and resolves better here than the other format allowed. What’s more, the higher resolution allows for a bit more detail to come across (although the images are soft due to the limitations of the medium at the time that these films were made). They look fairly good considering their age, and BFI should be commended for their restoration efforts. The results are surprising as clarity is especially strong when one considers their age. The Manxman may very well be the sturdiest transfer in the set while The Ring is probably the weakest of the silent restoration transfers. However, each of the four silent films are impressive efforts. The Skin Game is probably the weakest transfer in the set as the credits are jittery and there seems to be some unfortunate cropping on display (though neither of these issues is nearly as problematic as is seen in the various bootleg copies that are still so readily available). The master for this film was provided by Studio Canal, and Kino cleaned this master up a bit. However, this film hasn’t been given a proper restoration.

champagne-1928-010-film-leader

Notes about Champagne

“Although the restoration team were able to work from an original negative, which meant we were able to get very good image quality, this was a mixed blessing… At the beginning of the restoration process we were concerned that for a Hitchcock film there were some clumsily juxtaposed shots and framing errors, as well as the occasional shot exhibiting substandard acting or shots that were held uncomfortably long.

Further examination revealed an instruction scratched into a leader (blank film attached to the start of a reel to enable threading into the projector) saying ‘2nd neg’. From this we deduced that this negative was assembled from second-best shots, kept as a backup in case of damage to the original or for making additional prints for export. This was studio practice at the time… These were edited together from different takes that you can clearly see were taken at the same shoot, but were not taken simultaneously with a second camera. As this negative is the only original element in existence we will never know exactly what the film looked like as it was originally released.

The evidence of editor’s marks on the negative of Champagne confirmed our suspicions. An extensive international search of archives and film collections didn’t turn up any further copies of Champagne that we could use as a guide. One 16mm print loaned by a collector turned out to be made from our negative so could supply no new information…” –Bryony Dixon (Restoring Hitchcock #4: The Trouble with ‘Champagne,’ BFI)

In other words, the restoration is a beauty to behold, but Champagne can be seen as a “lost film” in many regards since what remains is essentially made up of alternate/inferior takes instead of the footage that had originally been chosen for release. Obviously, having this is certainly better than nothing at all, but it is important to make this point quite clear.

Champagne - SS05.jpg

Sound Quality:

3-4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

All five of the included films have been given 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio transfers, and the four silent efforts include new scores. The Ring has been scored by Meg Morley, The Farmer’s Wife was scored by Jon Mirsalis, Champagne boasts a score by Ben Model, and the music for The Manxman was provided by Andrew Earle Simpson. Each of these scores adequately support their respective film, and their transfers are quite strong.

Kino’s transfer for The Skin Game is as strong as can be expected considering the film’s age and the recording methods utilized by the production. There is some slight background hiss throughout the track, but this is never terribly distracting. Dialogue isn’t as sturdy as one might hope, but it is certainly audible and understandable. This is a huge improvement over the many bargain basement “bootleg” releases of The Skin Game as those were nearly impossible to sit through.

The Manxman - SS01

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Disc One

Feature Length Commentary for The Ring with Nick Pinkerton

Nick Pinkerton’s commentary gets off to a slow start, but those who continue listening to his track will be rewarded with some interesting information that might add to their appreciation of the film. Interestingly, his commentary seems to morph into the sort of “sports commentary” that one hears during sporting events when the film’s climactic boxing match gets underway. However, there were some interesting revelations during this portion of the film as well.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Audio Interview Excerpts: The Ring, and The Farmer’s Wife – (07:33)

Fans will be happy to note that the disc includes the excerpts from Hitchcock’s interview with François Truffaut that focus on The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife. Frankly, we disapprove when Blu-rays don’t include these excerpts. It’s obvious from their conversation that he prefers The Ring to The Farmer’s Wife, and the greater portion of these seven and a half minutes is devoted to that film.

Disc Two

Feature Length Commentary for Champagne with Farran Smith Nehme

Farran Smith Nehme’s commentary for Champagne is more immediately engaging than the Nick Pinkerton commentary for The Ring and no less informative. It isn’t one of the best commentaries we’ve heard as third party tracks rarely live up to those offered by people who have actually worked on the film. This one offers enough information and observation to make it a worthwhile addition to the disc.

Feature Length Commentary for The Manxman with Farran Smith Nehme

Nehme’s commentary for The Manxman is on par with her track for Champagne. There’s quite a bit of worthwhile material here. Fans should enjoy hearing it.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Audio Interview Excerpts: Champagne, The Manxman, and The Skin Game – (12:17)

This disc also includes excerpts François Truffaut’s infamous interview with Hitchcock. Of course, these segments cover Champagne, The Manxman, and The Skin Game. It seems as if some of their conversation covering these titles hasn’t been included (particularly in the case of The Skin Game), but what is here is certainly appreciated. It’s clear enough that none of these titles are among his favorites.

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Final Words:

Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection is an incomplete assembly of the films made during one of Alfred Hitchcock’s fallow periods. The Ring is one of the director’s most interesting silent efforts, but films like Champagne and The Skin Game are less essential to casual viewers. Meanwhile, one wonders why they didn’t include Juno and the Paycock, Rich and Strange, and Number Seventeen in this set. This would compete the collection (since Blackmail and Murder! were released individually).

Kino Lorber’s set offers an opportunity for fans to watch films that were made during a time when Hitchcock was just a cog in the studio wheel. Many of these titles were merely assignments and were made on deficient budgets. It is nice that they are available in high definition, and Kino Lorber should be commended for their efforts.

Review by: Devon Powell

Portrait

Source Material:

Staff Writer (The Farmer’s Wife, Western Morning News, September 16, 1927)

Alfred Hitchcock (Making Murder!, Cassell’s Magazine, August 1930)

Staff Writer (British Films: Activities at Elstree, Sydney Morning Herald, December 05, 1930)

Staff Writer (Illness Among Screen Stars: Productions Held Up at Elstree, Dundee Evening Telegraph, December 05, 1930)

William A. Mutch (The Skin Game, The Filmgoer’s Annual, 1932)

Alfred Hitchcock and John K. Newnham (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 1-5, 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

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

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Bryony Dixon (Restoring Hitchcock #4: The Trouble with Champagne, BFI, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

Blu-ray Review: Blackmail

Blackmail Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length:

Silent Version – 01:16:07

‘Talkie’ Version – 01:25:47

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1557 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio:

Silent Version – 1.33:1

‘Talkie’ Version – 1.20:1 / 1.33:1

Bitrate:

Silent Version – 32.85 Mbps

‘Talkie’ Version – 30.92 Mbps (1.33:1) / 30.73 Mbp (1.20:1 Version)

Notes: This “special edition” Blu-ray will also include the rare silent version of the film accompanied by a new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. This is the first time either version of this film has appeared on Blu-ray in North America. A DVD edition of this title is also available. In fact, the DVD edition is the film’s North American debut on that format as well. Blackmail has only been available previously on unofficial “public domain” labels, and the transfers used for these releases were horrendous. Of course, none of this takes into account the various VHS and Laserdisc releases of this title since those are dead formats.

Title

Blackmail: Alfred Hitchcock’s First “Talkie”

“Making a talkie film I had only just completed as a ‘silent’ …gave me a tremendous advantage over most other directors. For one thing, I was able to improve on my original ideas; and for another, I was not handicapped by having a stagey subject to handle.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The introduction of sound revolutionized the motion picture industry, but it seemed that the so-called “talkies” were a one-step progression and a two-step retreat (at least in the beginning). It completely changed the way that films were shot, and the new methods made the camera difficult to move. Worse, actors were glued to stationary positions so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Suddenly, sound recording took precedence over a film’s visual aesthetic. It is no wonder that the British film industry faced this new art-form with a certain amount of anxiety. It would mean building expensive soundstages, buying sound equipment, and completely relearning how to efficiently shoot a motion picture. This, of course, doesn’t even take into consideration the challenges faced by exhibitors—and what if talkies were a passing fad?

Luckily, Alfred Hitchcock worked best when he was challenged and often turned technical limitations into creative triumphs. It was impossible for the director to know for certain if British International Pictures would be prepared for a sound production in time for his next project, but most sources agree that he planned the film as both a sound and silent production just to be on the safe side. He decided to embrace the new innovation instead of being threatened by it, and the result was probably his strongest effort since The Lodger. Of course, this is at least partially due to the fact that Blackmail would return him to the thriller genre.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett

CHARLES BENNETT’S ORIGINAL STAGE PLAY

In fact, the film is actually based on a stage play by Charles Bennett—a man who would eventually become an instrumental collaborator on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

“Being a somewhat conceited individual, I like to believe that I subscribed in no small way to Hitch’s reputation. In fact, I know that it was my sense of suspense which moved Hitch to enlist me as his regular writer for seven of his early sound movies beginning with the ‘FIRST SUPER TALKIE,’ Blackmail (1929), for British International Pictures (BIP)…

His film was adapted from my second play… which during its London run caught the fancy of the rotund but highly talented young director. Hitch loved the story—his kind of stuff (and mine). Attempted seduction. Murder. The young innocent murderess being blackmailed. The switch in which the blackmailer himself becomes the suspect of the murder. Suspense.

Anyway, in 1928 Hitchcock had BIP lease the film rights to Blackmail…” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Of course, this is a slightly misleading quote, because—by his own admission—Bennett didn’t actually assist the director in adapting his play into a film. However, his influence is certainly felt in Hitchcock’s film version, and it is worth examining the origins of Blackmail for this reason. Luckily, much of what is known about this subject can be extracted from a short section from Charles Bennett’s autobiography:

“[Al Woods] advertised for authors to send their manuscripts for review, and to my satisfaction he chose my play ‘Blackmail’ from among three hundred submissions. The play was based on the experiences of a girl of whom I was once very fond, an adventure she had after attending the Chelsea Arts Ball. ‘Blackmail’ opened at the Globe Theater on February 28, 1928, [was] produced by Raymond Massey, and starring Tallulah Bankhead, then in her mid-twenties.

I remember that during the run Tallulah Bankhead invited me into her dressing room for a drink—she was stark naked. It wasn’t an invitation to an affair; it was just the way she was. But the play met a stormy reception, as Tallulah’s enthusiasts rushed the gallery stairs and the police were called. There was press notoriety concerning her role, then the play flopped. Critics remarked that if this was the best of several hundred plays, exactly how bad must the others have been? I had to go around apologizing, eventually replying to the criticism in a letter to the Sunday Express. When it was mentioned that I was the author, people thought it was funny. Fortunately, S. Rossiter Shepherd, Film critic for the Sunday People, published the truth about the miserable business, revealing how the original play had been hacked about and spoiled by Al Woods. This cleared me, as I could not really say a word in my own defense without repercussions among producers…

An interesting side note: I was actually knifed during a June 1928 performance of ‘Blackmail’ at the Regent Theatre, King’s Cross. I was playing the artist Peter Hewitt and, during the rape scene, the bread knife slipped from the grasp of the actress Violet Howard and sliced into my left ear. I received treatment at the Royal Free Hospital and then was able to return to the stage, head bandaged, for the curtain call.

When the original version went on tour with multiple touring companies, it proved the success it should have been in London’s West End. Thank God. One reviewer wrote kindly of me, ‘His object is to show the moral murderousness of blackmailers, and he succeeds vividly. He not only shows the tortures of the blackmailed, but lays bare also the state of mind of the blackmailer. The subtlety of alternating drama and psychology demands from the cast an unfaltering accuracy of interpretation.’” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Tallulah Bankhead 1928

Tallulah Bankhead portrayed Alice White in the Globe’s 1928 stage production of Blackmail. She would later portray Connie Porter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

It isn’t known whether Alfred Hitchcock attended one of these performances of Blackmail, but it certainly seems likely considering that he was an avid patron of the theatre, and this particular subject would have appealed to his tastes. However, Bennett’s memoir raises an important question. Which ending was included in the text that Hitchcock and his team used as the source for the eventual film? If you remember, the play was produced with two endings:

“One encounters a problem attempting to study [the play’s] third act. The version that Al Woods insisted on, and which the press panned, is presently unknown. Because Tallulah Bankhead’s fans behaved riotously, one suspects that Alice’s integrity was compromised by Al Wood’s version. But Charles said the play reverted back to its original ending on tour and was then successful.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Did Hitchcock have access to both the Al Woods and the Charles Bennett ending? This question is impossible to answer, and it might not matter very much since the play’s ending was jettisoned in favor of the film’s museum chase.

Even so, such changes should not keep us from examining the published script (which was provided to us by John Bennett as he is currently the holder of all rights to the play). First of all, it is interesting to note that the characters have different names in the original play than their cinematic counterparts, and the reasons for these changes seem somewhat arbitrary. For example, Alice maintains her given name in the film, but her surname has been changed from Jarvis to White. Her detective boyfriend maintained the surname of Webber, but his given name was changed from Harold to Frank. We learn from the play that the blackmailer’s given name is Ian. He is referenced only as “Tracy” in the film. Finally, Mr. Crewe (the doomed artist) was originally named Peter Hewitt. It is also worth noting that Alice has a brother named Albert in the play that never appears in Hitchcock’s film.

The first act of Bennett’s play takes place entirely in the artist’s apartment, and there are two lengthy scenes that play out as one in real time. The first of these scenes has Tracy (the eventual blackmailer) entering the vacant residence uninvited. It is clear that he is intoxicated, and he soon makes himself right at home. The louse even sits down to eat a meal that is laying out after helping himself to a beer that can only aggravate his particular condition. However, these actions are soon interrupted by the artist’s landlady (who is named “Mrs. Cook”), and she quickly tosses him out after their brief exchange makes it clear that he is a former resident who once lived in the building before being evicted. It seems that he was never able to pay his rent. The landlady puts everything back into order, turns out the lights, and escorts the man out of the building (we hear them leave).

This scene is twelve pages in length (the entire Act is less than thirty-five pages), and has absolutely no counterpart in the film. Instead, Hitchcock opens on the arrest of an unknown man, and then follows the detective (Harold/Frank) out on a date with an annoyed Alice. Alice picks a fight with Harold/Frank and ends up leaving with the artist, and this new couple runs into Tracy on their walk to his apartment. However, the next scene in Bennett’s play does have a counterpart in the film.

After the landlady and Tracy are heard leaving, the audience waits in “comparative darkness” for a time before “a distant church clock is heard chiming the hour … twelve strikes.” This sound is followed by the sound of someone entering the building, ascending the stairs, and approaching the door before the artist enters cautiously:

[…He strikes a match for illumination. He speaks in a whisper over his shoulder.]

Peter: It’s all right. Come in.

[Alice Jarvis comes forward out of the darkness of the passage. She passes Peter and advances hesitatingly into the room. The match splutters and goes out and in the darkness Peter closes the door—quietly turning the key and pocketing it afterwards. He speaks to cover the noises of the lock.]

Wait a moment. I’ll switch on the light.

[He strikes another match and going to the divan-bed switches on the red shaded light beside it. He doesn’t switch on the center light, probably because he knows that the more subdued illumination is more suitable for his purpose…]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is painfully obvious from the outset that the artist is on the make and probably not entirely trustworthy here. Whether this is also true of the film version is up for argument, but the play proceeds in a more straightforward and blatant manner than in the film. In any case, Bennett’s stage directions proceed to paint Alice as trying to hide her nervousness, and states that she regrets coming into his apartment.

[…He comes down and takes her caressingly by the shoulders. His voice is low and always seductively suggestive.]

Peter: Darling thing to come up here.

Alice [nervously]: I don’t know why I did.

Peter [with meaning]: I do.

[Alice looks at him, not sure of his trend and he smiles knowingly. She senses danger and lowering her eyes, breaks away towards the window, changing the subject as she does so.]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Alice sees something or someone outside of the window and inquires as to who the man was that addressed him as they were entering the building. We learn that Tracy is always bothering him for money, and she tells him that he is still hanging around outside. This doesn’t surprise the artist in the least as this seems to be his habit. This goes on for about a page, but the Artist soon takes the conversation back into uncomfortable territory.

[…She realizes that she must keep the conversation going if ‘unpleasantness’ is to be avoided and plunges into it.]

Alice: It’s — It’s a nice room.

Peter: Like it?

Alice [Looking around.]: Yes. I — I Like your big window.

Peter: Oh — That’s where I work.

Alice: Yes, I knew that — by the easel.

Peter: Do you paint then?

Alice: No — I wouldn’t know how to begin.

Peter [smiling]: I see I’ll have to teach you…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It would be reasonable for anyone who is familiar with Hitchcock’s film versions of Blackmail to assume that this leads into a scene wherein Alice’s hand is guided into painting a primitive nude, but the subject is immediately dropped here as the artist begins making himself a drink. However, this moment still has importance since it would have planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind for that particular exchange in his film. The line, “I see I’ll have to teach you” undoubtedly suggested that bit of business.

Bennett’s play takes another route. As Peter/Mr. Crewe makes himself a drink, he offers one to Alice only to discover that she is a teetotaler. He continues to apply some light pressure on her to no avail, so he instead offers her a cigarette. She doesn’t smoke either. This refusal to accept anything seems important as it should send a message to the man that his goals aren’t her own. The topic of conversation soon turns to her job, and we learn that she works selling clothes at “Horridge’s.” The man tries at every turn to steer the conversation where he wants it to go until he finally insists that she take off her coat and relax:

Alice: Oh, but I must be going in a minute.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice [quickly]: Yes. You see — it’s some way down the road.

Peter: But I’ll see you home. There’s nobody sitting up for you, is there?

Alice: No

[Too late. She wishes she had said ‘Yes.’]

Peter: Got a key?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: Then what are you worrying about? Here — Give me that coat.

Alice: But I really oughtn’t to —

Peter: Silly. Come on —

[He undoes her coat and in spite of her protests, removes it, revealing a pale blue dance frock beneath. It is short, close fitting, and very pretty in a simple way. Poor Alice, though, feeling positively naked before Peter’s gaze, looks down, abashed. Peter smiles and puts the coat on a chair by the table, then comes back and takes her hand. She speaks in feeble protest.]

Alice:I wish you wouldn’t make me take it off.

Peter: Why?

Alice: Oh, I don’t know. I feel so — so silly without it, somehow.

Peter: You don’t look it. Besides — you hadn’t got it on at the dance.

Alice: It wasn’t the same there.

Peter: How do you mean?

Alice [looking down]: Oh, I don’t know.

Peter [smiling at her]: Sit down.

Alice [nervously]: No. — I don’t want to sit down.

Peter: Of course you do. You must be tired out. [He sinks on the end of the bed and draws her to him.] Come on. — Don’t be shy.

Alice [terribly self-conscious]: I — I can’t help being shy. It’s — It’s the way you look at me, I think.

Peter: I won’t look at you then. [He draws her down onto his knee and she hangs her head, half ashamedly. Peter decided to adopt more subtle methods.] Did you enjoy the dance?

Alice: Yes. Did you?

Peter: Rather. I met you.

Alice [pleased but abashed]: Oh!

Peter: I’ve seen you there before, you know?

Alice: Have you?

Peter: Two or three times.

Alice [shyly]: I’ve seen you too — often.

Peter [a little flattered]: Have you—I say, that’s splendid! By the way, who was the fellow who looked so annoyed when you danced with me?

Alice: Oh. [She giggles a little.] That was Harold.

Peter: Harold?

Alice [looking down]: My young man.

Peter: Oh — So you’ve got a young man, have you?

Alice [glancing up shyly]: Of course.

Peter: Going to marry him?

Alice: One day.

Peter: Lucky beggar. What’s his job?

Alice: Well, he used to be a policeman, but he’s a detective now.

Peter: I say, that sounds imposing. Is he much older than you are?

Alice: Only six years. We’ve been walking out ever since I was fifteen.

Peter [lifting his eyebrows]: And you’re not tired of him yet?

Alice: Tired? Why, of course not. What funny things you say.

Peter [ruefully]: He didn’t seem to like the look of me much.

Alice [giggling again]: No, he didn’t. You should have heard some of the things he was saying about you out in the passage. We had quite a row.

Peter: A row?

Alice: Well — words anyway. That’s why I let you see me home — to teach him a lesson.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This discussion about Harold may have suggested to Hitchcock and his team the idea for Alice’s row with Frank in the restaurant. However, the film suggests that Alice was expecting to see the artist there, and she starts another row after finding him to ensure an opportunity to meet with this handsome stranger. As a result, her motives are less clear in the film version. It might be argued that this ambiguity makes the following episodes more interesting and sets up his decidedly grim ending.

In any case, this conversation continues as Alice and Peter discuss their former encounters at various dance-related events. We learn that Peter never approached her because she had always been with Harold before he goes on to insult his dancing abilities. Belittling her boyfriend is the precursor to asking her on a date, but she tells him that she couldn’t possibly see him in this manner. He continues to press the issue and insists that she see him again and assures her that Harold would never know about it. She tentatively relents, but it is unclear if this is merely her way of ending this topic of conversation or if she actually wants to see him. There are several more pages of Peter’s attempt to wear her down before he asks Alice if Harold’s jealousy was the only reason that she left with him.

Alice [looking down]: I — I’ve forgotten.

Peter: Perhaps I can help you remember. [He lowers his voice.] Was it — Was it because you wanted the same thing as I did?

Alice: I don’t know what you wanted.

Peter [meaningly]: Shall I tell you?

Alice [scenting danger]: No.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: It — It mightn’t be something I’d like.

Peter: Oh — You’d like it all right.

Alice: No. [She feels Peter’s gaze on her head and looks up, realizing desperately that she must keep talking.] I don’t know why I came up really. I — I think I thought it would be funny.

Peter: Funny?

Alice: Yes — You know. To — To go into a man’s room at night. I’ve never been in a man’s rooms [sic] before — at night.

Peter [congratulating himself on the way she is playing into his hands]: Never?

Alice: No.

Peter: So you were looking for new experiences, were you?

Alice: I — I suppose I was.

Peter: And you thought you’d start with me?

Alice [not knowing what to say]: Er — Yes.

Peter [softly]: I’m flattered. [Alice lowers her eyes and Peter smiles.] Are you — Are you glad you decided to start with me?

Alice [breathing quickly]: I — I don’t know.

Peter: Don’t know?

Alice: Not yet —

Peter [pretending to see a meaning which isn’t intended.]: Oh — I shan’t disappoint you. — You darling little devil.

[His face is very close to hers. She is trembling. He lifts her chin with his hand and looks into her eyes, then leans forward to kiss her lips. She realizes his intention though and draws her head back quickly — speaking as she does so —]

Alice: No.

Peter [taken aback]: Why?

Alice: I don’t want to be kissed.

Peter: Don’t want — ? But you didn’t mind half an hour ago at the town hall.

Alice: That was different.

Peter: I don’t see it.

Alice: It was.

Peter: Why?

Alice: You know. It’s — It’s not right now we’re alone.

Peter: Now we’re — But I don’t see — [He stares at her for a moment, then his eyes light up with well-affected amazement.] Why — I believe you’re afraid of me. —

Alice [quickly]: No I’m not.

Peter: I believe you are. Why?

Alice: I’ve told you — I’m not.

Peter: Really and truly?

Alice [nodding]: Yes.

Peter: Then — [He looks at her fixedly for a moment, then speaks very seductively.] Then prove it — by letting me kiss you.

Alice [frightened]: No.

Peter [His lips are very close to hers.]: Prove it —

Alice: I’ve asked you not to —

Peter [very softly]: Silly — [Alice is breathing quickly—her breast heaving. For a moment Peter gazes into her eyes—then he draws her to him and their lips meet. There is a long pause—then Peter speaks again—his voice very low.] Stay with me tonight.

Alice [shrinking]: No —

Peter: You’ll like it as much as I do. — I promise you that.

Alice: You know I can’t.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: Well — We — We’re not married.

Peter: Does that matter?

Alice: You know it does. Besides — I’m not that sort of girl.

Peter: What sort?

Alice: The sort you want me to be.

Peter [As if puzzled by her attitude]: But I don’t understand. I — I’m not trying to insult you, you know. I’m asking you to stay because — Well, because I like you.

Alice: I can’t stay.

Peter: You mean—you don’t want to?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: You don’t like me?

Alice: I never said so.

Peter: Then why — ?

Alice: Oh — You don’t understand. [She shakes her head.] I do like you. — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. It’s — It’s not because it’s you. It would be just the same whoever it was. It’s just — I’m not that sort. You know what I mean, don’t you?

Peter [after a slight pause]: I suppose I do. You mean — You mean you’d like to stay, but you feel you oughtn’t to.

Alice: Not quite that.

Peter: What then?

Alice: Oh — Can’t you see?

Peter: No.

Alice: Well, I’m going to be married one day.

Peter: I don’t see what that’s got to do with it.

Alice: It’s got a lot — [Simply.] You see — I’d like my husband to be the first man I ever — You know what I mean.

Peter [slowly]: Y—es. [Pausing reflectively, then smiles and rises. Going to the fireplace — lighting a cigarette.] Afraid I can’t see your point of view, you know.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The kiss in this portion of the scene may have suggested the threatening kiss in Hitchcock’s film versions, but the scene has a later kiss as well. It seems likely that the endless dialogue would have been cut in any case as it would have been too direct to pass the censors, but Hitchcock was also planning a film intended as a silent endeavor! He had to come up with a more visual means of seduction, and dialogue had to be both simple and brief. Hitchcock was prone to cinematic means of expression, and Bennett’s play was written for the stage. It’s difficult to imagine him taking this approach as he disliked “filmed theatre.”

In the play, the pair argues about whether Alice’s Victorian values are outdated and whether marriage is a worthwhile institution. Obviously, Peter is a man who isn’t going to respect her wishes if they get in the way of his own desires. Peter argues that their escapades wouldn’t be a sin. “What do you think we were sent into the world for? Not to sit and look at each other… The whole thing is a matter of conscience, and if you have a healthy mind, that needn’t bother you much. … Marriage laws were instituted by evil-minded old puritans—too damned prurient to see that if young people loved each other, they’d stick together anyway!” His argument has no effect. In fact, Alice outwits him:

Alice: If they loved each other! [She thinks it over for a minute—then looks at Peter.] Yes. But you don’t love me.

Peter: How do you know that?

Alice: I do know.

Peter: Well — I like you anyway — More than any girl I’ve met for years.

Alice: But you said – ‘If young people loved each other.’

Peter [realizing that he has made a slip.]: Well — You know what I mean.

Alice: Yes. — I think I do. [She speaks very simply.] And I think I agree with you too. If young people loved each other it might be different. Maybe marriage wouldn’t matter so much, then. But you don’t love me. —

Peter [uncomfortably—feeling he has lost ground.]: Well — not exactly — but — [He forces a smile.] Well — you don’t love me for the matter of fact.

Alice: I haven’t offered to stay.

Peter [flinching]: Now you are being cruel…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Peter tries insisting that he does love her out of sheer desperation. When it becomes clear that he isn’t winning her over, he turns away and broods like a child. Soon after this moment, Alice announces that she will be going. Her words seem to set off some sort of trigger in the man’s ego, and “he turns to look at her. The fact that she has repulsed him has only made her more desirable in his eyes.” This leads to a second kissing moment that may have also helped to suggest the scenes in Hitchcock’s film versions.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice: Why not?

Peter: There’s something else I want to say.

Alice: What?

[Peter is staring at her. He is obviously losing control of himself. He takes her hand—drawing nearer.]

Peter: You know what it is —

Alice: I don’t.

Peter: I — I want you.

Alice [frightened again]: No.

Peter: I do. [He is breathing very quickly.] Do you know how beautiful you are? Do you know?

Alice: Don’t. —

Peter: I can’t help it. — I want you — so much.

Alice [moved by his obvious sincerity]: You mustn’t say that. —

Peter: But it’s true. Alice —

[Their faces are close together. Suddenly, Peter takes her in his arms and kisses her passionately. For a moment, she doesn’t resist. Peter’s hand drops caressingly to her knee and he leans over—thrusting her back on the cushions. Suddenly though, she gasps and her hands beat him convulsively. She tears herself away—speaking quickly as she does so.]

Alice: No — Not like that.

Peter: Like what?

Alice: Like that. [She is obviously very frightened and she is rubbing her hand quickly backwards and forwards across her mouth.] I’ve never been kissed like that before. — It’s — It’s wrong.

Peter: It isn’t.

Alice: It is.

Peter: Nonsense. Besides — you liked it.

Alice: I didn’t.

Peter: You did. D’you think I don’t know?

Alice [hysterically]: I didn’t like it. How dare you talk to me like that. —

Peter [nervous at the noise she is making]: Here — For God’s sake keep your voice down. —

Alice: What — ! [She stares at him for a moment—arrested by his tone—then, with great effort, she steadies herself.] Alright. I will. You needn’t hear me anymore.

Peter: What do you mean? [Alice doesn’t reply. She turns away from him and snatching her coat from the chair she wraps it quickly ‘round her shoulders. Her face is hard and set. Peter, realizing that she is going, speaks repentantly.] But look here, Alice. — I didn’t intend to —

[But Alice has crossed quickly to the door and he tails off weakly as he reads the determination in her eyes. He pauses — not quite sure what to do. Alice tries the door — finds it locked — and faces him again. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: This door is locked.

Peter [dully]: Is it?

Alice: You know it is. You locked it.

Peter [morosely]: Well?

Alice: When?

Peter: In the dark—before I switched on the light.

Alice: Why?

Peter: Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t want us to be disturbed by my landlady — that was all.

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: But look here —

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: You’re really going then?

Alice: Yes. Give me the key.

[They are facing each other. Peter stares at her for a moment, then gives in and lowers his eyes. He slowly puts his hand to his pocket and takes out the key. He sinks on to the end of the bed couch — looks at her again — then throws the key to the ground at his feet. He speaks sullenly. ]

Peter: Oh, blast you then — take it.

[Alice looks at him disdainfully for a moment, comes down to pick up the key. Peter watches her resentfully. He is breathing in quick gasps — evidently not master of himself yet again. He has intended to let her go but her defiant carriage and steady eyes are too much for him. His lips curl into a twisted smile — desire and bitterness warring — then, suddenly, as she stoops to pick up the key, he covers it with his foot. His voice is quiet but hoarse with passion.]

No. Why should I let you go?

Alice [taken aback]: What?

Peter [his eyes fixed on her]: You knew what you were coming to when you came in here tonight. —

Alice [frightened]: What do you mean? Give me that key.

Peter: No.

Alice: Give me that key — !

[She makes a dart for it but peter’s hand shoots out and seizes her wrist. She writhes as he twists it and her coat slips from her shoulders and falls to the ground.]

Peter: You knew —

Alice [in agony]: Let me go —

Peter: A girl knows what to expect when she comes into a man’s room at night.

Alice: Let me go.

Peter: I’m damned if I do.

Alice: Let me go, I say —

Peter: No. You’ve been playing me up. — It’s my turn now.

Alice: Oh — !

[Thoroughly frightened she is struggling desperately by this time. Suddenly she stoops forward and bites his hand. He lets go her wrists with an exclamation of disgust.]

Peter: God! You cat!

[Alice, free for a moment, darts away across the room — but Peter is just behind her. He seizes her frock at the neck but it tears right down revealing pretty ‘Cami-knickers’ beneath. Having lost her momentarily, he sways drunkenly almost falling — evidently the result of intense emotional excitement — and Alice, seizing her opportunity reaches the table and turns on him with her back to it. But Peter is after her again.]

Alice: Keep away from me —

Peter: What —

Alice: Keep away. I’ll shout for help.

Peter [closing with her]: No you won’t — you damned little cheat.

Alice [fighting desperately]: You—You—Help!!

Peter [thrusting his hand over her mouth]: Shut up — Blast you —

[Alice tries to scream but can’t. For a moment they are struggling fiercely—then Peter has her in his arms and is kissing her wildly, Alice is gasping for breath, but Peter is forcing her farther and farther back on to the table. He is obviously carried away with passion and doesn’t know what he is doing. SUDDENLY Alice’s right hand is disengaged, and somehow THE BREAD KNIFE IS IN IT! Peter tries to seize her hand, but it is too late. The knife whips through the air and a moment later is reeling back with an ugly wound in the throat. Alice drops the knife and staggers away from the table. Peter is writhing horribly — one hand to his neck — another to his heart. He falls but rises again. Alice watches him — horror stricken. He falls across the bed and for a moment is writhing in his death agony — then he lies quite still. Alice stares at the form on the bed for a while—her eyes wide with terror. Presently she speaks—intense fear in her voice.]

Alice: What’s the matter? What’s the matter with you? You’re trying to frighten me — aren’t you? [She draws a little nearer—speaking very appealingly.] Aren’t you? [She draws nearer still and her eyes dilate. She leans over, and putting out her hand, touches the dead man’s face, but snatches it back again with a stifled scream as she comes in contact with blood. She shrinks away from the bed — agony in her voice.] Oh—I didn’t mean to do it. You shouldn’t have — You shouldn’t have tried to —

[Her voice is shaking with fright and emotion and she tails off weakly. For a while she stands gazing at the silent form — obviously in a quandary as to what to do next, Presently she goes to the window and looks out furtively—then comes back to the bed again. She stands there for a moment — still undecided — then, suddenly, she makes up her mind. She picks her coat up quickly and draws it about her — gets the key — crosses to the reading lamp and switches it off — goes to the door and opens it stealthily — looks ‘round once more — then passes out into the blackness of the passage, closing the door behind her. For a while the creaking of the stairs is heard as she descends, and presently the closing of the front door is discernible. The room is left in darkness again as in the opening of the act — the hazy moonlight striking across the bed, just revealing the silent for that lies there. The distant church clock is chiming the hour again — and anon, the heavy stroke of one is heard.

There is a pause. Then the sound of gravel is heard being thrown from below and rattling on the window pane is heard — Tracy — trying to attract the attention of Peter Hewitt. After another pause, the rattle of the gravel on the pane is heard again.]

THE CURTAIN FALLS.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

There are obviously momentary similarities between the play and the Hitchcock versions, but there are also radical differences that go beyond the reduced dialogue, the off-screen nature of the murder, and the basic staging. The introduction of the clown painting accounts for a major addition to Bennett’s text, and it becomes a motif that carries through to the very final film. The aftermath of the murder is radically different in Hitchcock’s film. The film’s Alice is absolutely stunned and noticeably less at herself than the Alice of the play.

However, Bennett’s second act contains a curious amalgam of obvious similarities and major differences to Hitchcock’s adaptation. Some of these differences may at first seem rather arbitrary, but closer analysis will clearly show that these minor alterations change the manner in which scenes that are taken (almost) directly from the play are experienced by an audience.

First of all, Hitchcock alters the characterization of Alice’s parents and omits the character of Albert (Alice’s brother). However, it might be argued that the character of her brother has been replaced with the gossiping customer as Albert is responsible for gossiping about the murder in the play’s second act. Bennett describes Alice’s father as “fat, fifty, ponderous, dogmatic, and extremely like a sea lion. He has a tremendous respect for the profundity of his own wisdom and a child-like, if entirely erroneous, belief that he is… a wit.” Meanwhile, her mother is characterized as “an unsympathetic woman of forty-five or so,” and claims that “she might have been good hearted and human enough” if she had married anyone else. Instead, “she has developed a hard and nagging disposition. She takes great delight in scandal (other people’s), is sycophantish [sic] towards her betters and has a very strong ‘respectability complex.’” Hitchcock’s film reduces the importance of these characters but also makes them more sympathetic.

This portion of Bennett’s play also calls into question the validity of scholarly criticism about Joan Barry’s accent as inappropriate for “a cockney shop girl.” A study of the play’s text reveals that while Mr. Jarvis/Mr. White has a thick cockney accent, both Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White and Alice speak in a more proper manner (although this is less true of the mother). What’s more, there is a casual mention of the sacrifices made for Alice’s education, so Alice probably received speech training as part of her school’s curriculum. One could certainly argue a case for either point of view.

More interesting than this triviality is the fact that Alfred Hitchcock has Alice sneaking into bed and evading scrutiny about her late arrival while the play opens on her parents as they worry about her whereabouts. We learn that it is four o’clock in the afternoon and that she has been missing for sixteen hours. It is instantly clear that her mother is more concerned about the possibility of a potential scandal than she is about Alice’s safety. She is painted as an extremely unpleasant person. Of course, the same cannot be said about Sara Allgood’s portrayal in the film.

Albert (Alice’s brother) soon returns from his search for Alice and has no news to report about his sister’s whereabouts, but he has learned about the murder of a “young artist bloke” who was discovered “dead—up the road near the King’s Picture ‘ouse… Wound in the neck an’ a blood-stained knife on the floor beside ‘im.” Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White takes an intense momentary interest before remembering her own troubles. The scene, which is part of one long act that plays out in real time, takes place in the parlor of the family’s general shop.

A second scene runs into this one when Alice finally shows up.

[Mrs. Jarvis stares at her. Her relief has been intense, and for a moment she has been prepared to welcome her daughter with all the love that lies in her. But her words and intentions freeze into nonexistence as she appreciates Alice’s appearance. A germ of suspicion is immediately bred, rapidly grows and as rapidly finds confirmation. She is at once convinced that ‘the worst’ has happened and her voice and demeanor reveal the fact. She speaks slowly.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Oh! So you’ve come home, have you? Well — Where have you been?

[Alice is looking at her mother. She is obviously at the end of her tether. Her movements are quick and nervous. And there is a haunted look in her eyes. She looks at her father and then at her brother. Finding no sympathy in either of them, her eyes come back to the questioner. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: Walking?

Alice: Just — walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: And last night?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: What? [Alice can’t bear it any longer and lowers her eyes. Mrs. Jarvis stares at her for a moment — then follows up her attack.] What do you mean — walking?

Alice [suddenly — desperately]: Leave me alone. Let me be. I’m not going to say anything.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Obviously, there is nothing at all like this in Hitchcock’s adaptation. However, it seems reasonable to suspect—as Charles Barr also noted in his essay, “Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn”—that this scene suggested Alice’s incredible post-murder journey through the city in Hitchcock’s film. The cinematic sequence is one of the film’s most memorable stretches and was purely Hitchcock’s creation, but it seems likely that Bennett’s play once again planted the seed for the idea in the director’s mind.

The play continues down this same path as Mrs. Jarvis and (to a lesser extent) the other members of Alice’s family try to force her to tell them where she has been. She continues to refuse until finally snapping at them: “You all seem pretty sure of what really happened last night. All right, then — you can think what you like — but I’ll tell you one thing, though. Whatever did happen is a thousand times worse than anything you can imagine — any of you!” Obviously, this only exacerbates her situation.

As this article has already mentioned, Alice’s absence goes unnoticed by her family in the Hitchcock films. This allows for the brilliant scene with the gossiping customer—the infamous “knife” sequence. It’s quite a scene and may actually do an even better job at getting Alice’s anxiety across to the viewer. It somehow makes it worse that her family doesn’t suspect anything as she is entirely alone in her suffering here.

In any case, this interrogation continues until the entrance of Harold/Frank.

[The shop door-bell rings and a man enters the shop. Mrs. Jarvis glances through the door.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Here’s Harold. [Alice starts.] Yes—and you’d better think what you’re going to say to him. You won’t get any help from us.

Alice [nervously]: I can’t see him.

Mrs. Jarvis: We’ll see about that — Ah! [Harold Webber has entered the room. For a moment during the preceding dialogue he has lingered in the shop waiting for an invitation to come in — but suddenly seeing Alice, he dispenses with ceremony… He stands just inside the room — his eyes on Alice. Mrs. Jarvis addresses him at once.] Yes — you may well come here, Harold. There she is—home after sixteen hours. Maybe she’ll tell you more than she told us. Ask her where she was last night.

Harold [looking fixedly at Alice and speaking quietly.]: Yes — I want to ask her that. [Alice lowers her eyes. Harold pauses a moment, then turns to Mrs. Jarvis.] But I’d like to ask you alone — if you don’t mind.

Mrs. Jarvis [disappointed]: But I don’t see —

Harold [looking at Alice again]: If you don’t mind, Mrs. Jarvis.

Mrs. Jarvis [annoyed]: Oh — very well, then. — We’ll go to the kitchen.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This particular portion of the play does bring to mind a moment in the film when Alice asks Mr. and Mrs. White to leave their parlor/kitchen in the film, but this doesn’t happen until after Tracy arrives as a threat to the couple. The Hitchcock version of Harold/Frank’s interrogation of Alice occurs much more simply and with very little dialogue in a phone booth located in the public area of the store. What’s more, the audience knows from one of the film’s earlier scenes that Frank has discovered Alice’s glove and is fully aware that he suspects that Alice is guilty of the artist’s murder. In the play, this actually comes as a surprise after an interrogation of Alice that lasts over nine pages in length. After asking where she has been, he tells her that he is currently investigating a man’s murder and reads her an excerpt from the newspaper that informs her and the audience that the police are currently working on a clue. He then asks her who she left the dance with the previous night, and it becomes clear that he saw her leave with the murdered man.

Harold: …Was it the fellow you were dancing with?

Alice [after a silent pause]: No.

Harold: It wasn’t?

Alice [turning away to avoid his eyes]: No.

Harold [doubtfully]: Um! Did he tell you his name?

Alice [evasively]: I can’t remember.

Harold [curiously]: Can’t you? I wonder if you’d remember if you heard it again. —

Alice [facing him—frightened]: Why? — Do you know it?

Harold [nodding]: I know it all right. Shall I tell you?

Alice [quickly]: No.

Harold: Why not?

Alice [turning away again]: I’m — I’m not interested.

Harold: No — ? [Alice looks into the fire and doesn’t reply. Harold changes his tone once more.] By the way, Alice — you lost your gloves last night. Did you know?

Alice: No

Harold: I found them. [He takes a pair of long, light, kid gloves from his pocket.] These are yours, aren’t they? [Alice takes the gloves from him and stares at them—but doesn’t reply.] Aren’t those the ones I gave you at Christmas?

Alice: I — I don’t know. Where did you find them?

Harold: Are they yours?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: No.

Harold: They’re not.

Alice: No

Harold [doubtfully]: Sure? — Where are yours then — ?

Alice [quickly]: Oh—somewhere—in my pocket, I expect.

Harold: Um! [He thinks it over a moment.] Oh, all right, give me those back — I’ll need them.

Alice: Why?

Harold [as casually as possible]: Well — as a matter of fact they’re a clue.

Alice [startled]: A clue?

Harold: Yes. I ought to have handed them over to my chief when I found them. I took a pretty big risk when I put them in my pocket instead.

Alice [staring at him]: Harold —

Harold [looking straight into her eyes]: To tell you the truth I found them in the room where Peter Hewitt died — [Slowly] Peter Hewitt — the artist you were dancing with at the town hall last night.

Alice: But — [She stops.]

Harold: What?

Alice [quickly]: I—I don’t know what you’re getting at.

Harold: I think you do.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The play continues down this path with Alice refusing to admit her guilt and Harold becoming more forceful in his approach. It is only when she comes to understand that Harold has no intention of handing her over to the police that she breaks down and admits her guilt. Harold then promises her that he will stick by her and no one will ever know. In contrast, Hitchcock sets up the uniqueness of Alice’s gloves in the restaurant scene very early in his adaptation as we learn “there’s a hole in two fingers.” This allows him to show the audience the discovery of the glove and then allow the couple to interact with very little dialogue and very little exposition. The result is as follows:

Frank: What happened last night?

[Alice looks away from him not wanting to answer.]

Why won’t you tell me?

[After a beat, he realizes that she isn’t going to tell him and takes the glove from his pocket.]

Look. You know where I found that?

[Surprise and fear registers on Alice’s face as she nods that she does.]

It’s the only piece of evidence that you were there.

[She reaches for it, but he puts it back into his pocket.]

I’m keeping it back at present.

[She looks at him, at a loss for words.]

For God’s sake, say something!

[There is a knock at the phone booth’s door. It is Tracy. He has been watching them throughout the scene. He opens the door.]

Tracy: If you’re not using the phone, uh, may I? I — I want to get on to Scotland Yard.”

Interestingly, Tracy also interrupts the couple in Bennett’s play. After Harold/Frank promises that they are “the only two in the world who will ever know” that she killed the artist, they hear someone entering the store. We soon learn that their customer is Tracy, and he asks for Alice. Before she can refuse him, the man enters the parlor without asking and then proceeds to blackmail the couple for five pages. It isn’t unlike what happens in the film, but he milks money from them on the spot and even pressures Alice to take money from the store’s till to buy his silence. The biggest change here is that this shake down is allowed to play out, and the blackmailer leaves the premises after promising to be back regularly. In the film, the tables are turned on Tracy when Frank receives a phone call from Scotland Yard.

This never happens in Bennett’s play. Instead, Alice’s parents return to the parlor shortly after Tracy leaves their company. Mrs. Jarvis expects to learn from Harold what her daughter has been up to the previous night, but he refuses to tell her as she has told him in confidence. As a result, Mrs. Jarvis turns against him and suspects that “it’s a put-up job between them,” and accuses her of being with him the previous night. This continues until they again hear someone enter the shop. Albert has returned with more gossip about the murder.

[He is obviously very excited. Mrs. Jarvis transfers her attention to him at once.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Well?

Albert [at random]: Well — They’ve fahned out ‘oo did it!

Mrs. Jarvis: What?

Albert: Why, the murder, o’ course.

Mrs. Jarvis [exasperated]: What murder?

Albert [surprised at her ignorance]: O’ the young artist bloke up the road. ‘Is landlady — a Mrs. Cook, ‘as come forward an’ given the chap away.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Of course, the chap in question is Tracy. Alice feels bad that the wrong man has been accused, but Harold believes that he deserves whatever he gets and calls it a “heaven-sent chance.” This is obviously what suggested the phone call from Scotland Yard that turned the tables on the blackmailer in Hitchcock’s film. The film version simply opts for economy.

The published version of the play’s third act has no counterpart in Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation as it finds an anxiety ridden Alice wide awake in the middle of the night as she tries to phone Harold/Frank. She is caught by Albert (who never even appears in the film version), and he makes it clear that he suspects that she is somehow mixed up with the Peter Hewitt murder. When Alice finally admits that she is the one who killed him, Albert leaves to discuss the matter with Harold. Meanwhile, Alice calls Harold to tell him that her brother is on his way to see him and admits that she is worrying about the welfare of Tracy. After this brief phone conversation, she hears someone at the shop door. This, of course, turns out to be an extremely exhausted Tracy. We learn that he has been chased by the police for hours and has come to seek shelter as it is storming. He tries to convince Alice to turn herself in to the police as they discuss their current situation. Alice assures Tracy that she has no intention of letting him take the fall for her, but she prefers to find another way around it so as not to get Harold into any trouble.

Soon, they see a policeman with a light peering in the store windows and hide. It seems that he is merely checking the premises as part of his nightly duty and hasn’t seen them. After more discussion, Harold arrives to talk to Alice. He tells her that Tracy was spotted entering the store and that other policemen are on their way to arrest him. There is an argument between the couple—with interjections, insults, and threats made by Tracy—about what she should do when the police arrive. She tells him that it would be wrong to let someone be punished for her crime and asks him to call the station to turn her in so that suspicion will be taken off of him. When he refuses, things become heated between Harold and Tracy. After absorbing a number of Tracy’s insults, Harold ends up pulling a gun on the man.

Harold:[He is staring at Tracy. There is a queer note in his voice.] Still — there’s another way, you know.

Tracy: What?

[Harold pauses a moment before answering. His hand is in his right pocket — his voice is steady.]

Harold: Besides us — Alice and me — you are the only person in the world who knows how Peter Hewitt died. I’m a policeman and there’s a warrant out for your arrest. If you tried to escape it’s my job to take you — and if you put up a fight — they’re not going to hang me for going a bit further.

Tracy: What do you mean?

Harold [suddenly whipping a light revolver from his pocket and covering Tracy]: THIS — !

Alice [terrified]: Harold — !

Harold [an insane glint in his eyes]: Look at that! Look at it, you swine. Murder to cover murder. It’s been done before, you know.

Tracy [cowering back]: You’re mad.

Harold: Perhaps

Alice [desperately]: Harold!!

Harold [throwing her back with his left arm.]: Keep out o’ this — [He lifts the revolver to shoot—but Alice has darted behind him and has seized his hand. He struggles with her.] Let go. — Let go. —

Alice: You can’t —

Harold [wildly]: Can’t I — ?

[He throws her off momentarily — AND SHOOTS! But Alice has knocked up the muzzle of the revolver and the bullet hits a picture, high above Tracy’s head. Alice seizes Harold by the wrist — desperate appeal in her voice.]

Alice: Harold!!

[Harold is staring at her — his eyes wild. Suddenly there is a loud knock at the shop door. Harold looks up and the revolver slips from his fingers and falls to the floor. Alice dives for it — then runs towards the left hand door evidently afraid that Harold might try to get it again. But Harold is standing as if in a dream — his muscles relaxed — his face expressionless. He speaks quietly.]

Harold: The police — !”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is, in fact, the Sargent of police. He has arrived to arrest Tracy. Alice makes an effort of confession but is hushed by Harold. She tries again but is interrupted by Albert. He has returned from the police station, and he demands that Harold call the station before anything else happens. After a brief exchange of confusion and argument, he does as Albert asks and phones the station. It seems by Harold’s reaction that he is receiving surprising news. Once this conversation is finished and the call is ended, we learn what he has heard on the other end of the line.

[Harold looks at them — one after another. His eyes finally rest on Alice. At last he speaks — slowly — as if in a dream.]

Harold: Peter Hewitt! His doctor went to Scotland Yard tonight. He told them a thing or two and it made them think — [To Tracy] And then — because they were after you, a police surgeon was sent down to the mortuary at once. He found out who did it — He found out —

Alice [staring]: Harold —

Harold [almost laughing—on the verge of a breakdown.]: Did you think he was murdered? My God! What a lot of fools we’ve been. Why, the wound wasn’t deep enough to have killed. The jugular vein wasn’t touched. [His lips move convulsively for a moment — then.] He died — of HEART FAILURE!

Tracy [gasping]: What?

Harold [going on quickly as Alice starts violently.]: Heart failure — brought on by over excitement. His heart’s been weak for months so the doctor says and they worked it out — Oh, Lord — they’re so clever — [He sways a moment and steadies himself against a chair before going on.] He — He was about to have supper when something — something happened to upset him. He had a seizure — the bread knife was in his hand — he fell — ON THE KNIFE! He managed to crawl to the bed where he died a few minutes later of — of — heart failure — Heart —

[He staggers and nearly falls—his hand to his eyes. The Sergeant darts forward and catches him by the arm.]

Sergeant: Steady!—What’s up?

Harold [sinking into a chair]: Nothing. Dizzy. — It’s been a long day—[His eyes come to Tracy. He speaks thickly.] There’ll be no charge against him. Take him along. They’ll let him go again when he gets there.

Sergeant [looking at Tracy regretfully]: Um! Are you ready, sir? [Tracy doesn’t reply. He too seems knocked out by the sudden turn of events. He looks at Harold then at Alice—then slowly turns and goes up into the shop. The Constable follows him. The Sergeant turns up too — speaking to Harold as he goes.] You’ll follow us — ?

Harold [without looking at him.]: At once.

Sergeant [to Alice]: Goodnight, Miss.

[Alice doesn’t reply. She is gazing fixedly at Harold. The Sergeant smiles to himself — turns — and goes into the shop, closing the glass door after him. Albert goes with him. A moment later the outer door slams — signifying that they have gone. Harold is sitting very still — staring straight in front of him — at nothing. Suddenly the pendulum clock gives a whirring noise and strikes ONE. Alice starts and speaks—fear in her voice.]

Alice: Oh. — Twenty-four hours since — since — [Her voice trails off.]

Harold [looking at her at last—speaking steadily]: Peter Hewitt died of heart failure.

[Alice looks at him—her eyes light up—she comes toward him.]

Alice: Harold — Was that true?

Harold [rising to meet her — nodding his head.]: True. —

Alice [relief too intense for words]: Oh. —

[Harold takes her in his arms — affectionately–protectively. She nestles up to him—looking up into his eyes. He speaks very quietly.]

Harold: You poor kid.

THE CURTAIN FALLS”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The carryover from this portion of the original play was the idea for the chase sequence in the original film version. Tracy elaborates on his experiences after seeking shelter with Alice, and it seems likely that this planted the seed for Hitchcock’s third act (even if the action in the film adaptation is completely different than what was described by Tracy in Bennett’s play.

An unpublished version of the play entitled “24 Hours” actually had another ending. This early draft seems to have taken a much different path to its eventual happy ending. Apparently, Alice eventually admits to the crime so as to let Tracy off the hook in this version.

“A sensational trial, occurring during the curtained interval between the second and third acts, acquits Alice of murder because she acted in self-defense. Returning home from jail, she is introduced by her mother, Mrs. Jarvis, to Miss Potter, a nasty Victorian spinster. Miss Potter has been tasked to force the terrified girl into a workhouse, where, locked away, she will atone her family’s disgrace by ironing.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

It is doubtful that Hitchcock ever saw this early draft of the play, but it might be worth including here as a comparison to the version that was published:

Miss Potter: You must remember that this is going to take a lot of living down. Your parents have their livelihood to consider. If you were here… Well… It isn’t a very pleasant reflection, is it? I mean… The disgrace.

Alice: But I don’t see. What disgrace? I’ve been acquitted.

Miss Potter: Acquittal isn’t everything.

Alice [losing control of herself]: But they said… Oh… you ought to have been there to hear them. It was proved I wasn’t to blame.

Miss Potter [soothing her … irritatingly]: Now try to keep calm. It’s alright. It won’t be for long. You can come back here in a year or so’s time.

Alice: A year or so! And where do you expect me to go in the meanwhile?

Miss Potter: That has been arranged. You will live for the next few months at the Southwark branch of the Fallen Women’s Aid Society… [Alice gives a gasp but Miss Potter continues] You will find your surroundings friendly and congenial and you will have time to reflect and to think about making a new start in life. You will…

Alice [suddenly … unable to bear it any longer]: Be quiet! You … dreadful … woman!

Miss Potter [staggered … and shocked to the depths of her soul]: What … !!

Alice [tensely]: So you want to put me in prison after all. Yes … that’s what it means … Aid Society! Why … [desperately] I’d rather go on the streets!

Mrs. Jarvis: Alice!

Alice [to her mother]: You. Do you consent to this?

Mrs. Jarvis: It’s best, Alice.

Alice: Best! [She turns away on the verge of hysterical laughter—but faces them again.] And this is my home. You don’t want me here. I killed a man to save myself from … from … [Her voice breaks but she carries on.] And yet you’d send me to a home, among women of that sort … as if … as if … [She is crying again.]

–Charles Bennett (24 Hours, as reprinted in “Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense,” 2014)

Of course, Alice refuses to go to the workhouse and ends up selling her story to the press for a large sum of money before announcing that she will marry the detective. Even if this ending had been presented to the director, it seems highly unlikely that he would have used it in his film.

This is a photograph of Alfred Hitchcock that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

THE ADAPTATION

If Blackmail can be viewed as the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s association with Charles Bennett, it should also be seen as the end of the director’s collaboration with Eliot Stannard. Stannard had collaborated in some capacity on the scripts for each of his silent films, but Blackmail was the dawn of a new era. On November 07, 1928, The Times reported that Garnet Weston was working on the scenario, but in the end Weston only contributed a rather generalized treatment for the film—a treatment that didn’t include the film’s third act chase through the British Museum.

Of course, Alma Reville was always a primary collaborator (especially during this phase in the director’s career), but the duo usually wanted a third voice.

“…Hitchcock didn’t have to look far. With his instinct for discovering young talent, he remembered Michael Powell… Hitchcock liked him, and so did Mrs. Hitchcock…

…During the filming of The Manxman Hitchcock had handed Powell a copy of the Charles Bennett play, telling him that Blackmail was well-crafted until the weak third act. Hitchcock liked fireworks for his third acts, the dramatic set pieces he called ‘crescendos,’ which topped everything that went before.

‘See what you think of the play,’ Hitchcock told Powell, ‘and let me know how you think it might be improved for a film.’ It was the kind of remark Hitchcock often meant as a little test, but Powell passed swimmingly. He returned to tell Hitchcock he agreed with him—Blackmail would make a ‘swell movie.’ When Hitchcock then asked about the rotten’ third act, Powell said, ‘To hell with the third act. We’ll make it a chase.’” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Of course, many people in the director’s orbit at the time have laid claim to coming up with the initial idea for Blackmail’s chase sequence (including John Maxwell), but it seems fairly safe to assume that the idea was born out of script sessions with Hitchcock, Reville, and Powell. It would probably be very difficult for even these three participants to actually nail down who came up with an idea that was born out of group conversation, but Powell would have certainly participated in the idea. In any case, his account of the script meetings that produced the chase is worth noting:

“At one script session, according to Powell, the director ‘broached an idea that I had been nurturing for a while.’ Blackmail ought to conclude, Powell suggested, with an elaborate chase that takes place in ‘some bizarre location that is entertaining in itself.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Hitchcock, raising his eyebrows. ‘What do you think Michael means, Alma?’ Right on cue, Mrs. Hitchcock gave Powell an encouraging nod. Powell had been pondering his boyhood visits to the British Museum Reading Room; that hallowed edifice with its glass dome. ‘Let’s have him [the blackmailer, pursued by police] slip into the British Museum at night,’ Powell offered, ‘and get chased through rooms full of Egyptian mummies and Elgin Marbles, and climb higher to escape, and be cornered and then fall through the glass dome of the Reading Room and break his neck.’ The Hitchcocks beamed.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

With the film’s third act in place, the director could begin planning for the film’s unusual production.

Sound Proofing 2

PRODUCTION: SILENT AND SOUND VERSIONS

We know that the production began as a silent film, but the production history of Blackmail is somewhat convoluted. In some ways, Hitchcock’s own recollections seem to raise nearly as many questions as they answer.

“I was bitterly disappointed when I was told that it was to be a silent picture. I was convinced that talkies were no mere flash in the pan and that the day of silent films had passed. I felt certain in my own mind that, when the picture was finished, I should be asked to add dialogue to it, or to remake it entirely as a full-length talkie. Therefore, when producing the film in silent form, I was imagining all the time that it was a talkie. I was using talkie technique, but without sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

As luck (or fate) would have it, the director was proven correct.

“…They told me that the last reel was going to be done in sound. I didn’t let them know up front, but I knew there was so much of the visual in it that here and there I could go back and drop certain sounds into scenes that were completed. Having seen it once since then, I think it shows a little bit that there’s no flow of dialogue where it should flow. The dialogue almost comes in like titles in the early part of the picture.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This, of course, implies that Hitchcock was able to lay in sound over most of the scenes that had already been shot for the silent version. However, Hitchcock told François Truffaut that the producers gave him “carte blanche to shoot some scenes over.” What’s more, an article written by Hitchcock in 1936 suggests that quite a few scenes were completely reshot (and a comparison of the two films confirms this).

“I was allowed to remake practically the whole of the picture in talkie form. There were certain difficulties. I had the same cast, except for Phyllis Konstam, who had gone off to fulfill a stage engagement. Phyllis Monkman replaced her.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The replacement of Phyllis Konstam was a relatively inconsequential change in casting as she was only in a few scenes. However, it would have been impractical to recast the film’s protagonist, and this impracticality created quite a bit of chaos when it came time to reshoot scenes for the sound version.

“The star was Anny Ondra, the [Czech] actress, who, naturally, hardly spoke any English. We couldn’t dub in the voices then as we do today. So, I got around the difficulty by calling on an English actress, Joan Barry, who did the dialogue standing outside the frame, with her own microphone, while Miss Ondra pantomimed the words.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

It is this particular production problem that bothers many scholars. It’s impossible to fathom that the film would have been as groundbreaking sound-wise without quite a bit of serious consideration and planning. However, it seems strange that Hitchcock would have cast Anny Ondra as Alice White if he truly anticipated from the outset that he would be shooting sound. This seems somewhat paradoxical! On one hand, his sound experiments couldn’t have been achieved seamlessly without serious preplanning. On the other hand, if he was planning for a possible sound production, why was Ondra cast in the first place?

It seems reasonable to assume (and there is evidence to support the theory) that a sound production was initially nixed by the studio after the director’s contingent planning for both possibilities but before casting the film. It is known that John Maxwell (the film’s producer) changed his mind and agreed to add a final sound scene after production was well under way, and that he signed off on a few more sound additions at the behest of Hitchcock at an even later date. Hitchcock and Ondra were good friends. He wasn’t about to dismiss her in the middle of a production.

Anny Ondra

Anny Ondra

Even actors with strong voices and appropriate accents had a rough go of it. The coming of sound made it necessary for actors to relearn their craft. Silent actors had to adapt their technique so as to give more understated performances. Studios also began hiring stage actors, but acting for the screen required a different technique than what was required for the stage. Alfred Hitchcock remembered how veteran stage actress, Sara Allgood, had trouble adjusting her technique during the production of Blackmail:

“I remember a terrible moment in connection with her. As it was her first film we got to discussing [sic] the technique of the screen, and I was pointing out how stage actors rarely used their expressions and only their voices—they never had to project their expressions. Filmmaking was exactly the opposite; everything depended on pantomime.

‘How does one acquire the technique of pantomime?’ Sara asked me. I told her that it was mainly instinct, though there were artificial ways of teaching it. In the early days of films they would make a star look agonized by telling her bad news or releasing some rats at her feet.

‘How would you look,’ for example, ‘if I suddenly told you your mother was dead?’ To my surprise, Sara’s face suddenly went into tragic contortions, and she turned her head away. Then she explained. I had hit upon an unhappiest example I could possibly have chosen. Her mother had only just died.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Any issues regarding the film’s actors were somewhat easy to overcome in comparison to the technical challenges created by the addition of sound production. Patrick McGilligan paints a particularly grim picture of his circumstances during the shooting of Blackmail’s sound sequences in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light:

Blackmail moved into B.I.P.’s new temporary soundstage: a padded house on the Elstree grounds. The walls were cushioned with blankets. Draped felt was sandwiched under the corrugated iron roof. The sound cameras had to be encased in telephone-booth-like kiosks on wheels. The cameras couldn’t track or dolly without wheeling the entire booth around the room. Camera movement—already a Hitchcock trademark—basically ground to a halt.

The standard carbon arc lamps produced an incessant hum and sputter, so the cameramen began experimenting with five and ten-kilowatt incandescents [sic]. This worked out well for illumination purposes, but created a near-suffocating heat inside the stage area—‘like being in a bake house,’ as Freddie Young recalled. ‘In between calls, the actors lay down on the floor and napped as best they could in the sweltering heat.’

The camera booth, a smaller confined space, was hellish—an even more punishing sweatbox. It was covered in front by a thick glass panel that had to be wiped clean constantly with alcohol. The crew even grabbed their tea breaks inside. ‘The operator was locked inside,’ recalled Young, who was assistant cameraman on another B.I.P. talkie… ‘And there he’d stay until the end of the take, when he’d stagger out sweating and gasping for air.’

…Hitchcock, most of the time, was stationed in a separate recording booth that was every bit as hot and suffocating, wearing outsized earphones to monitor the audio quality.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

A comparison of the “murder sequence” as seen in both the silent and talkie versions of Blackmail speaks volumes. Consider an incredibly effective moment in the silent version where the camera moves with the artist as he makes his way closer and closer to Alice before he attacks her. There is no such moment in the “talkie” version, because moving the camera in this manner would have been impossible.

Blackmail - Silent Approach

This threatening moment from the silent version of Blackmail isn’t replicated in the sound version of the film.

Blackmail - Murder Mustache

The mustache shadow seen in this image was Hitchcock’s farewell to silent cinema.

One touch that did manage to make both versions of the film was often mentioned by the director in interviews:

“I did a funny thing in that scene, a sort of farewell to silent pictures. On the silent screen the villain was generally a man with a mustache. Well, my villain was clean-shaven, but an ironwork chandelier in his studio cast a shadow on his upper lip that suggested an absolutely fierce-looking mustache!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

While one feels that this sequence was better served in the silent version, the celebrated “knife” scene is an incredible scene that uses sound as dramatically (and as subjectively) as Hitchcock uses the camera:

“After the girl has killed the painter, there is a scene showing a breakfast, with her family seated around the table. One of the neighbors is discussing the murder. She says, ‘What a terrible way to kill a man, with a knife in the back. If I had killed him, I might have struck him over the head with a brick, but I wouldn’t use a knife.’ And the talk goes on and on, becoming a confusion of vague noises to which the girl no longer listens—except for the one word, ‘knife, knife,’ which is said over and over again and becomes fainter and fainter. Then suddenly she hears her father’s normal, loud voice: ‘Alice, please pass me the bread knife.’ And Alice has to pick up a knife similar to the one she’s used for the killing, while the others go on chattering about the crime.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

As Hitchcock would later write in an article about screen direction, the sequence is a clear example of “how careful use of sound can help strengthen the intensity of a situation.” The remarkable thing about this particular scene is that it was made during a time when few were making any effort to use sound dramatically. For most filmmakers, sound was merely a functional gimmick that often got in the way of their visuals. Hitchcock understood that it could be used to enhance the drama.

Scholars have also given the film’s climactic chase sequence plenty of attention throughout the years, but this may be because there is so much documented information available about the shooting of this sequence. One of the earliest of these articles was published while Blackmail was still in production:

“The British Museum… is to play quite a big part in the first British ‘talkie,’ Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail. Mr. Hitchcock has permission to film as much of the exterior and photograph as much of the interior as he wants, and his minions were at work a few days ago, in a ‘Flying Squad’ van, filming a ‘wanted’ man (Mr. Donald Calthrop), who scudded along Great Russell street, and dashed to cover up the steps of the Museum. Mr. Hitchcock, who seems to be turning rather to the Russian theory of casting types rather than professional actors, made his cameraman film the ordinary passers-by against whom Mr. Calthrop brushed. Though a few became ‘camera conscious,’ the effect was realistic. For the interior scenes, which include a chase along the galleries and a crash through the dome of the reading room, the Museum authorities have naturally not allowed facilities on the spot.” –The Adelaide Chronicle (Filming the British Museum, July 11, 1929)

Hitchcock was able to realize the interiors shots that made up the greater part of the film’s museum chase by utilizing a technique that he had learned during his stay in Germany:

“It was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schufftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage.

The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, ‘All right, bring back the Schufftan.’ I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock often insisted that this ending was a compromise.

“I never did it the way I really wanted to… In the first reel, I show the process of an arrest: the detectives go out in the morning; they pick up the man; he has a gun; they take it away and put the handcuffs on. He’s taken to the police station, booked, fingerprinted, and questioned. They take a mug shot and lock him up in a cell. And then we come back to the two detectives going to the men’s room and washing their hands, just as though they were two office workers. To them, it was just the end of a day’s work. The younger detective’s girl is waiting for him; they go to a restaurant, have a row and go their separate ways…

…The ending I originally wanted was different [than the ending used in the film]. After the chase and the death of the blackmailer, the girl would have been arrested and the young man would have had to do the same things to her that we saw at the beginning: handcuffs, booking at the police station, and so on. Then he would meet his older partner in the men’s room, and the other man, unaware of what had taken place, would say, ‘Are you going out with your girl tonight?’ And he would have answered, ‘No, I’m going straight home.’ And the picture would have ended in that way. But the producers claimed it was too depressing.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the so-called “happily-ever-after” that the producers forced on Hitchcock was eventually subverted by the director into what is decidedly not a happy ending. The film’s ending has layers of foreboding as we understand that neither Alice nor Frank are free. They have merely locked themselves into another kind of prison—together, and in bondage. In other words:

“The producers unwittingly chose the more radical ending because it ‘looked’ more conventional, a romantic happy ending. The censors who gave Buñuel his marvelously subversive conclusion to Viridiana made the same happy error… In any case, the imposed ending stands as an integrated ironic whole.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

If there was any hope as to the couple’s potential for future happiness, Hitchcock brilliantly destroys it during these final moments by bringing back the film’s most frequent motif:

“The most protean symbol is Crewe’s painting of the clown… The clown image itself assumes various expressions. Upon Alice’s arrival in the studio, it promises gaiety. It leers at her when the atmosphere turns erotic. When the same face accuses her after she kills Crewe, she slashes at its harsh laughter. The clown later catches the furtive Frank’s concealment of the glove and taunts him. At the end the painting is carried past Frank and Alice into the heart of the Yard, where it will point its accusing finger at the duped police force…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

It isn’t mentioned, but the painting also seems to be accusing both Alice and Frank as it is carried past them. It knows that they can never be happy. It knows that their future is grim. It even admonishes the audience for our complicity in these crimes. Do we even deserve a happy ending?

This is a publicity photograph of Cyril Ritchard and Anny Ondra that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

RELEASE AND RECEPTION:

“The first showing in Berlin of the British International Pictures production, Blackmail, was used to test the feeling of the public here on the vocal film.

The whole work was passed twice across the screen, once with and once without the voices, and the audience, consisting mainly of people connected with the cinematograph industry who had come by invitation, was asked to state on voting cards which of the two versions was preferred. The result was 685 votes for the silent and 439 for the, vocal rendering.

This decision is the more important because the work on the whole was very well received. One of this evening’s papers, for instance, says: ‘It does not, like others, merely pretend to be a sound film, but actually is one.’

The same writer finds that certain scenes were very successful and clearly indicated the many and extraordinary possibilities of the sound film. He also speaks of the ‘wonderful atmospheric truth; and ‘The minute penetration in the observation and reproduction of detail shown by the very gifted young producer, Alfred Hitchcock.’” –Hull Daily Mail (Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

It is interesting to consider that the silent version was the preferred version of Blackmail during this preview screening, and the silent version was more widely distributed since there was a great number of theaters that were still not set up to exhibit “talkies.” However, most of the existing press from the era seems to largely ignore the silent Blackmail as British International Pictures understandably preferred to promote their first sound picture, and this more popular version of the film was (by most accounts) an overwhelming critical success. Most critics showered “Britain’s First All-Talking Picture” with hyperbolic praise. Of course, there were exceptions. For example, Hugh Castle wrote an incredibly condescending—if mostly positive—review for the film that oozes snobbish pretention:

“Alfred Hitchcock had finished the picture at the time the talkie wave broke. Frenzied conferences resulted in his re-shooting most of it and making it into a dialogue picture. It must be said at the outset that, considering that he was toying with a medium about which we knew nothing, considering he had a finished picture to doctor into a talkie, considering his star could not speak English and had to be ‘ghosted’ throughout, he has made a good job of it.

Blackmail is perhaps the most intelligent mixture of sound and silence we have yet seen. It is not a great picture, it is not a masterpiece, it not an artistic triumph, it is not a valuable addition to the gallery of the world’s great films, it is not even, I think, a great box-office picture. But it is a first effort of which the British industry has every reason to be proud. It is Hitchcock’s come-back. While seeing it you can hardly believe that it was made by the man who gave us Champagne or The Manxman. For perhaps the first time in the history of the commercial cinema we are faced with a good film based on a dreadful play. Usually, however low the stage, the screen can be depended upon to go one lower.

As is usual in the more serious Hitchcock pictures, all considerations are secondary to the Almighty German Technique. If you shoot up a stairway you must tilt your camera until the result looks like Gertrude Stein reduced to a cross-word puzzle. If you want to show a Flying Squad car in full blast you begin by showing a revolving wheel and draw away until you run parallel to the car. Very clever, of course. Yet Hitchcock has a way—at his best—of justifying his weaknesses.

The first reel is silent. The dialogue is in arithmetic progression with the speed of the picture. The story, which is too thin from the commercial angle, and too inane from the artistic, concerns a detective in the Flying Squad whose girl murders an artist who attempts to seduce her… An altogether inconsequential theme for a good picture. Yet. Hitchcock succeeds in wedding sound with silence.

He has one sequence which, despite the way it has been glorified in the English press, gives one a clear idea of the potentialities of the medium. The girl overhears a chatterbox discussing the murder, while the memory of the knife is still fresh in her penny-dreadful mind. The talk dies down and down until only the word ” ‘knife’ emerges, stabbing, hurting. Inasmuch as that particular sequence is about the only one we have on record in which sound has been definitely instrumental in the development of the drama, the picture is worthwhile…

… Within twenty-four hours of the show being over, the optimists were predicting an immediate revival in British production. Blackmail has put us on top of the world. Pudovkin is dead, Eisenstein has ceased to be. Even Carl Laemmle, a greater figure than either, is forgotten for the moment! We shall see.” –Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Of course, Ernest Betts, in a later article entitled, “All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing” was less courteous (but even more pompous) in his mention of the film. It should come as no surprise to note that it too was an article for Close Up:

“I suppose it would not be denied that one of the essential gifts of the daily paper film critic of popular standing is to be able to write voluminously about nothing. However asinine the subject-matter, there is always plenty to be said about it. And we know in any case that the best journalists are very often those who can give an air of importance to things which really do not matter at all…

Blackmail is a good story, but it tells us nothing, except that if pretty girls will get involved with artists in Chelsea they may get seduced. But this is exactly the type of film of which I complain. What was the great focal point of all the critics over this particular film? It was admiration and analysis of its technique. Good heavens, to think of the stuff I have written, or attempted to write, about Hitchcock’s technique! I look at the stuff and I say: ‘This is awful! What on earth are you talking about? Where did you get hold of it all?’ And at once I am reminded of the dreary university lectures I used to attend on the textual sublimities of Chaucer, the alliterative fancies of Piers Ploughman, and so on. But the vital spark of Chaucer and Langland I never got. And nobody reads either of them now except as an academic exercise. For the truth is, these studies were concerned with the makings of literature, not with the thing made, which you can hold up to the light and judge as a living texture. It is as if you bought a clock for the works instead of the time…” –Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

Mr. Betts really shouldn’t have been allowed to write about film in the first place. Philistines shouldn’t masquerade as scholars, and those who can’t fully appreciate the cinema do not deserve it. In any case, this sort of attitude seems to have been the exception to the rule. The Times, for example, had nothing but praise for the film. What’s more, they were able to impart their praise without lacing it with condescension:

“More than the average significance attached to the showing of Blackmail, as it was the first full-length talking subject to be made in a British film studio. Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, the director, should be well pleased with his work, which easily surpasses its forerunners in the peculiar gifts which the sound film is acquiring for itself. From the first Mr. Hitchcock has held firmly to the principles of movement which underlie his craft. Blackmail is a true motion picture, and frees us from the idea that the camera must be transfixed and the pictorial flow of the film arrested merely for the pleasure of recording a variety of strange noises.

Based on the play by Mr. Charles Bennett, the story retells, even to the carving-knife, the Tosca-like theme of seduction which has served film and opera so faithfully. Mr. Hitchcock, sweeping aside American traditions of speed and glamour, has given us a piece of uncompromising ‘cinema’ whose lentisaimo drama unfolds without any attempt to lash itself into fury. Yet it is full of doom, and rolls on with fatal deliberation to its end. While the young Chelsea artist is entertaining the tobacconist’s daughter at his studio, the rhythm is so slow, the scene so artless, we never suspect the horror lying in wait behind the curtains. Thereafter the blackmail of the girl by the loafer in possession of her glove is conducted with the same mesmeric coolness, and we witness the scenes at Scotland Yard, the thrilling chase on to the roof of the British Museum, as if personal to these encounters. This would be satisfying enough as a silent film. It gains by the director’s use of sound, which calls for no display of thunder or circus swagger. During the first 10 minutes of the film not a character breaks into speech, for the story is quite able to express itself pantomimically [sic]. When at length the casual talk of detectives is introduced, the ear is not offended as by battery and assault. The words bring relief after, silence and the long, mounting suspense. Indeed, the dialogue throughout is admirably written and enters with a frank and pleasing cadence into its graphic background. Considerable use is made of voices ‘off the set,’ and the realistic note is heightened by this device, as when detectives are heard speaking in an adjacent room and we understand, though we do not hear, the words.

Aside from these technical considerations, the scene, story, and characterization have much to recommend them. They have the freshness of truth, showing us intelligible people on lawful and dastardly occasions in such settings as the London suburbs, Chelsea, Westminster, Bloomsbury, Piccadilly, and ‘the Yard.’ Mr. Hitchcock’s fondness for symbolism does not diminish and he loves the perspective of a good staircase ; but his camera has an original eye, always set at a vivid angle, and he can make time deepen and ache for its crisis in a way that has no parallel in skill since Warning Shadows.

Credit must be given to the cast, who speak and move with so sensitive a response to the story’s needs. Miss Anny Ondra, whom we saw not long ago in The Manxman, has infinitely improved her performance, as somebody has clearly improved, if not stolen, her voice. As the artist, Mr. Cyril Ritchard gives a study free of all ‘arty’ conventions, and produces a graceful villain in whom we can well believe. Miss Sarah Allgood, as a film mother, caught the outlines of that over-photographed character perfectly, and spared us the sentimental deluge. But perhaps the most brilliant performance was that of Mr. Donald Calthrop, whose blackmailer leaves us amazed that he is not oftener seen in British films. The Elstree studios can take pride in a production which should appreciably raise the stock of our fluctuating British industry, while it is but just to add that under Mr. Hitchcock’s guidance the talking film has taken a very definite step forward.” –The Times (June 24, 1929)

A review published in the Yorkshire Evening Post was no less flattering:

“The first really big audible film, Blackmail… touches the top note in talkie production, and is actually better than the best American speaking picture that has yet raised its voice in this country. The players speak quietly, naturally and distinctly, while even whispers are rendered effectively. There is no suggestion of a gramophone in the recording (R.C.A. Photophone sound on film) or in the reproduction.

In this screen version of Charles Bennett’s drama, Alfred Hitchcock has not been content to offer something in the nature of a photographed stage play with ‘canned’ dialogue, but has used the elastic medium of the cinema camera to form a large and impressive background to the story. It is a murder melodrama in which the action is confined entirely to London. Scenes in Scotland Yard, the Corner House and the British Museum have never been reproduced so faithfully in any film play. From the opening scene, the only silent portion of the picture in which detectives of the ‘flying squad’ arrest a ‘wanted’ man in the slums, the tension is never relaxed to the last ‘shot’ of all.

The theme may not be particularly novel, but it is treated in an unusual way. Also, the acting all round reaches a higher standard of excellence than in any talkie yet. It is stated that Anny Ondra, the Continental star, who plays the leading feminine role, employed a ‘double’ for her voice, but if so, synchronization is so nearly perfect that eye and ear are deceived… If British producers can keep up to the high level of Blackmail, there should be a bright future before the home talkie industry.” –L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Dundee Evening Telegraph went as far to imply that it was the Brit’s patriotic duty to see the film.

“There is really only one thing that is possible to say about Britain’s first all-talking picture, Blackmail, and that is—see it. Blackmail, made entirely at Elstree and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has anything that America had done beaten to a frazzle. The single fact alone that we hear the Mother Tongue as it should be spoken is sufficient to recommend it to all patriotic Britons. But Blackmail has more than that. The story is strong and dramatic, the acting is blameless, and the glimpses one gets of the interior of Scotland Yard and many other well-known and familiar places, and of the methods of that thrilling organization, ‘The Flying Squad,’ are intensely fascinating and homely [sic]. It is strange how much better one likes to see places that one knows on the screen, than scenes one has never visited…

…We are indebted to the brilliant direction of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his little details are touches of sheer genius, such as, for instance, the opening scenes of the film. Although Blackmail is a full-length ‘talkie,’ Hitchcock has given us the introduction to his film in a silence that is ten times more effective than any sound. He himself says there are moments in any film when silence speaks far more than words…

…Everything has been done to obtain realism, and the characters on the screen seem to be made of flesh and blood and not mere puppets, so deftly has the producer handled the material at his command.” –Dundee Evening Telegraph (First British Talkie a Triumphant Success, August 09, 1929)

It is clear that at least some of the critical enthusiasm for the film was born out of national pride and support for the British film industry (which was struggling to gain a foothold even within the confines of Britain). Blackmail seemed to offer hope that it could compete with American product, and this is why this review—and many of the others—make it a point to laud it favorably against American product.

It’s also interesting to note that many of these reviews make it a point to criticize Charles Bennett’s stage play even as it praises Hitchcock’s film. Both of these trends are on display in a review published by The Canberra Times:

Blackmail (says the London Daily Mail) is as far in advance of all other talking films which have hitherto been shown in London… It is—very nearly—a great film. The qualification is necessary, not in virtue of its merits in comparison with other talking films, but because of its own standards. In this film for the first time intelligent use is made of sound: the noise has not been thrown in as an overweight to the action. The director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, has been known always as a master of expressive technique. He has succeeded in translating into vocal terms the doctrines of expressionism which the great Germans like Pabst and Lubitsch have exploited in pictorial values. It is superb entertainment and it is the first credible picture of London and its characteristic life which has yet appeared on the screen. London is, indeed, its leading lady. The story is taken from the stage play of the same name (and in its taking contrary to established practice, Mr. Hitchcock has transmuted a play which was almost entirely tedious into an exciting entertainment)… Blackmail will come as a shock to the American film magnates, who cannot conceive goodness in a film not created after their own image.” –The Canberra Times (New English Talkie, October 11, 1929)

A review published in The Burnley Express is perhaps even more concerned with the British film industry than it is in the film:

“All who are interested in the welfare of the British film industry will be delighted with Blackmail… A good story has been most intelligently directed. A little is occasionally left to the imagination, and there are many subtle touches which we thought at one time could only be introduced by Continental directors… The acting throughout is of a standard seldom reached in ‘talkies.’ Anny Ondra, John Logden, and Donald Calthrop, who head the cast are all splendid. I hope the British films will continue to be successful enough to keep these fine players in their own country.” –Burnley Express (British Success at The Pentridge, January 08, 1930)

The same publication would publish another equally enthusiastic review only a few weeks later:

Blackmail… was practically the first British picture to challenge the supremacy of the American ‘talkies.’ Alfred Hitchcock, the director, proved himself a real master of his art by his masterly handling of this picture, which is sure to attract large audiences wherever it is shown… Although the director’ brilliant work would have of itself made the picture a success, the players have given him every possible assistance by gripping characterizations, and Blackmail will now remove any doubt anyone may have had regarding the future prospects of the British film industry.” –Burnley Express (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, January 24, 1930)

In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan suggests that the film was denied distribution in America despite rave reviews in the trades, but this seems to be untrue—or at least misleading—as there is much period evidence to suggest that it played to enthusiastic audiences after premiering at the Selwyn in New York on October 04, 1929. In fact, periodicals of the era even suggest that the film was “held over” and that Blackmail had “broken the house record” at the Davis theater in San Francisco.

There’s also a good number of American reviews for the film, and reading them makes it easier to understand why the British press made so many snide remarks about America’s film output. The American press was fairly dismissive of British pictures and treated them as if they were inferior and unimportant, so it should come as no real shock to learn that many of these American reviews weren’t nearly as positive as most of those that came out of the director’s home country.

Freddie Schader’s review for Motion Picture News is a case in point:

“This was heralded as the best British made talking film to date. If this is a sample of the best that the English can turn out, we have only to say that it is of the quality that in this country is usually booked into Class B and C houses and never gets into deluxe first runs. To bring this picture to Broadway and offer it at $2 top is going a little too far. It is a murder mystery tale with Scotland Yard as its background. The only one who really committed the crime goes scott-free. There’s no moral in that, is there?

But the picture has a moral. It is simply this: Never permit your love for cheese to persuade you to place a chunk of it at the head of your bed, and above all never leave a knife with it. For if this artist chap, who is the heavy, hadn’t left a piece of cheese and a knife with it on the table where it was possible to reach it from the bed he never would have been murdered…

…The chap who played the blackmailer must have been the architect of the British Museum judging from his familiarity with the various stairways, halls, and doors in the building during a chase which seemingly ran more than a reel. There is no one in the cast who matters to this market.” -Freddie Schader (Opinions on Pictures: Blackmail, Motion Picture News, October-December 1929)

Variety was just as dismissive:

Blackmail is most draggy. It has no speed or pace and very little suspense. Everything’s open-face. It’s a story [from the play by Charles Bennett] that has been told in different disguises—the story of a girl who kills a man trying to assault her…

…In performance the standout is Donald Calthrop as the rat crook. He looks it. Ondra is excellent as the girl. Dialogue is ordinary but sufficient. Camera work [was] rather well done, especially on the British Museum [in the chase finale] and the eating house scenes. A bit of comedy here and there, but not enough to be called relief.” -Variety (December 31, 1928)

This particular review actually makes one wonder if Variety was allergic to complete sentences, but Mordaunt Hall’s review on the New York Times is nearly as clunky and just as disparaging:

Blackmail, Britain’s first talking picture, which was wildly acclaimed by London critics, is… a murder story based on a play by Charles Bennett and in spite of its many artificial situations and convenient ideas it possesses a dramatic value that holds the attention. It has the advantage of authentic backgrounds, even to an episode for which the British Museum serves as a setting. Its vocal delivery is nicely modulated. The diction of the players is very English but none the less pleasing and suitable to the chronicle. Its continuity is smooth, the narrative being told without any extravagant flourishes, and the performances of the players reveal that two or three of them could do even better work.

The characters impress one as always being far too obedient to the director’s iron will. They do the wrong thing to set the story right. An artist who is murdered is more natural in life than any of the other persons. The photography is seldom up to American standards, for the director, Alfred Hitchcock, frequently fails to see that his scenes are adequately lighted and more often than not the images do not stand out as distinctly as they might if more attention had been paid to the shading of the interior walls…

…The dialogue in this film is frequently so staccato that it reminds one of the speech of Dickens’s Alfred Jingle. Three words are uttered and then follows a curious and artificial silence. Then there may be either four or five words with another hushed period. This talking matches the action of the players, for Mr. Hitchcock, to heighten the dramatic effect, often calls upon his actors to move with exasperating slowness. Anny Ondra, a Czechoslovakian actress who does not speak with any noticeable foreign accent, officiates as Miss White. She has a well-defined personality and does creditable work. The failing in her acting in some scenes is due to the direction…” –Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Apparently, Hall was unaware of the fact that Ondra’s voice was in actuality Joan Barry’s voice. What’s more, if there is any “failing in her acting,” this is likely do to the fact that she was merely mouthing words as Barry spoke her dialogue. His statement that the film was inadequately lit makes one wonder what he would think of the film noir genre with its use of shadow. In any case, it seems unlikely that the film was given a fair chance by American critics.

However, a review in Billboard did have a few kind words for the film despite criticism about “a slow beginning” and “inconsistent” direction.

“Lacking all the fancy photography and distracting features that visually accompany a foreign-made production, Blackmail proves to be one of the best pictures that has yet been imported to America. Except for a few minutes of a slow beginning the picture holds its audience with a dramatic intensity that few American productions during the current season have equaled…

…The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is inconsistent in parts, with a letter left to the artist which the police read several times without letting the audience know its contents, but, as a whole, the job is very well done. The recording throughout is excellent and American producers could learn a lesson from this production, which will prove a howling success in any theater in which it is played.” –J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Luckily, time has allowed for a more objective analysis of the film. It may not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best British thrillers, but it absolutely stands above a vast majority of the early sound pictures being made at that time.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the two discs in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from one of the lobby cards that was used to promote Blackmail during its original theatrical engagement:

Lobby Card

Of course, the image has been adjusted to include a stylized title that was taken from various vintage advertisements for the film.

Blackmail Menu

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from the film’s score and is both attractive and easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

While the “talkie version” of Blackmail has seen several illegitimate “public domain” releases featuring terrible transfers that nearly rendered the film unwatchable, the “silent version” has never been given a home video release in North America. Those who have only seen one of these horrendous transfers of the “talkie version” will be surprised to discover that they haven’t actually seen the film at all. Meanwhile, the “silent” version will be completely new to an even greater number of people.

The talkie version is available in two distinct versions:

Disc One features the film in the typical 1.33:1 aspect ratio (along with the Silent Version), and Disc Two supposedly presents the film in the original theatrical ratio of 1.20:1. European films of this era were often shot in this ratio because the soundtrack utilized part of the frame. If this was the original 1.20:1 image, the horizontally stretched 1.33:1 version of the film would seem superfluous. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the 1.20:1 version of the film seems vertically stretched so that it is actually a 1.12:1 image! This is a rather disappointing revelation. As for the 1.33:1 version, one assumes that it has been included here because some of the shots were originally captured silently in the Academy ratio, and this version will allow those shots to shine (even if they were not originally presented in this manner except in the “silent version”). However, this is simply conjecture.

Blackmail Transfer Comparison

The largest of these images is distortion free. The top side image is from the 1.33:1 transfer and is horizontally stretched. The bottom side image is of the 1.20:1 transfer and is vertically stretched.

To be clear, the 1.20:1 version is slightly less distorted than the 1.33:1 version. However, most of the aforementioned “public domain” discs presented a horizontally stretched transfer, and familiarity with this particular brand of distortion might make this the preferred transfer for some viewers. In any case, stretching is a curse that has followed this film for decades.

Both of these transfers display significantly more contrast than the “silent version” of the film, and there is some noticeable print damage on display. However, the damage isn’t at all distracting. In fact, this is the cleanest that the film has ever looked on home video. What’s more, it is much clearer than any of those dreadful “public domain” transfers. Seeing this new transfer will be a revelation! Detail is surprisingly evident throughout, although the “talky” transfer does suffer somewhat when compared to BFI’s Restoration transfer of the “silent” version of Blackmail. I’d say that a restoration of the sound version is also in order.

The silent version is a healthier looking transfer that exhibits stronger blacks and quite a bit more detail throughout the film. A comparison between these two versions is a fairly good demonstration as to why film restoration is so incredibly important. BFI did a terrific job here, and Kino Lorber’s transfer is an admirable reproduction of their good work. There have been criticisms about this transfer that suggest that the transfer could have benefited from a bit more contrast, but we wouldn’t want just anyone tinkering with the knobs.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The “talkie” version of Blackmail is given a 2.0 DTS-HD transfer of the film’s original mono soundtrack that faithfully reproduces the film’s original sound without embellishment. Obviously, the primitive production techniques that were used limit the range despite being a clean representation of the original elements. Hiss is never an issue here, but it can occasionally be heard if one is listening for it. It is a vast improvement over all of the previous unofficial “public domain” releases! The fact is that this is an incredibly clean track. When one considers the film’s production history, it might even be considered a minor miracle.

The silent version’s 2.0 DTS-HD mix of the score is also an incredibly healthy transfer. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra comes through cleanly and clearly.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

First of all, we are not counting the Silent Version of Blackmail as a supplemental feature here, because the film is equally as important to this release as its “Talkie” counterpart.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas offers valuable comparison between the silent and sound versions of the film, mention’s Michael Powell’s collaboration, and points out errors in the continuity. It’s a better-than-average commentary track that engages the listener.

Anny Ondra’s Screen/Sound Test – (00:59)

Sound Test

What a treasure! Any Blu-ray release of Blackmail without this screen test would be incomplete.

As is mentioned in the above essay about the film, Anny Ondra was a Czech film actress with a rather thick accent that was decidedly inappropriate for the very British protagonist. Most sources agree that this sound test was done as a demonstration to Anny Ondra, and Hitchcock does mention that she had asked to hear her voice on film within the actual test itself. However, other details surrounding the test are somewhat vague. We know that Jack Cox was the cameraman with Hitchcock very much in control. Apparently, the director had a habit of trying to make his actors—both male and female—laugh with his “bawdy humor.” His exchange with Anny Ondra fell in line with this habit:

Alfred Hitchcock: Now, uh, Miss Ondra. You asked me to let you hear your voice on the talking picture.

Anny Ondra: [Giggles] But, Hitch, you mustn’t do that.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why not?

Anny Ondra: Well, because… I can’t speak well.

Alfred Hitchcock: Do you realize the squad van will be here any moment?

Anny Ondra: No, really? Oh, my god. I’m terribly frightened.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why? Have you been a bad woman or something?

Anny Ondra: Well, not just bad, but… uh.

Alfred Hitchcock: But you’ve slept with men.

Anny Ondra: Oh, no! [She turns away as she laughs.]

Alfred Hitchcock: You have not? Come here. Stand in your place, otherwise
it will not come out right, as the girl said to the soldier.

Anny Ondra laughs as she turns away from the camera.

Hitchcock: [turns to the camera] That’s enough.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon – (10:27)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Blackmail and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (06:28)

It would probably be better to label this as an “interview” rather than an introduction. There are way too many spoilers here, and it provides more information than the typical introduction. Some of Simsolo’s information is laced with questionable commentary, but this is a slightly better interview than the one that he provided for Murder!

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)

The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailers – (01:43)

Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailers – (02:04)

Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

The theatrical trailers are welcome and worth having on the disc, but the Blu-ray advertisements seem like superfluous additions. One wishes that the original trailers for Blackmail could have been found and included. This would have been a significant addition to the disc.

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Final Words:

Kino Lorber has finally given Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film (and his final silent film) a solid release on the Blu-ray format. Which version of Blackmail is superior? You can finally decide for yourself.

Review by: Devon Powell

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS06

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1928)

Staff Writer (The Film World, The Times, November 07, 1928)

Staff Writer (First English Talkers Start in Production, Amarillo Sunday News Globe, May 05, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, Nottingham Evening Post, May 23, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, The Times, June 24, 1929)

Staff Writer (The Talkie King Talks, Evening News, June 25, 1929)

L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, The Adelaide Chronicle, July 11, 1929)

Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Staff Writer (The First Two British All-Dialogue Pictures, Yorkshire Post, August 29, 1929)

Staff Writer (Hull Daily Mail, Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ October 4, Billboard, October 05, 1929)

Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Staff Writer (New English Talkie, The Canberra Times, October 11, 1929)

J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ Held Over, Billboard, October 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, Hull Daily Mail, November 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (British Success at The Pentridge, Burnley Express, January 08, 1930)

Staff Writer (Stageland, The World’s News, January 15, 1930)

Staff Writer (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, Burnley Express, January 24, 1930)

Robert Herring (Twenty-Three Talkies, Close Up, February 1930)

Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

Oswell Blakeston (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Alfred Hitchcock and John K. Newnham (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 1-5, 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Some Aspects of Direction, National Board of Review, October 1938)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

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

Tom Ryall (Blackmail: BFI Film Classics, December 27, 1993)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Charles Barr (Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

Blu-ray Review: The House of Hitchcock – Limited Edition Collection

HOHC - Blu-ray Set.jpg

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: October 01, 2019

Region: Region A

Notes: These films are also available individually with standard Blu-ray packaging, as part of The Masterpiece Collection, and as part of The Ultimate Collection.

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Universal owns the rights to more Alfred Hitchcock titles than any other studio, and they certainly milk these properties for every penny that they are able to squeeze out of his admirers. However, one really shouldn’t complain since this gives fans an opportunity to own these films with plenty of choice as to how these discs are packaged. Each of the films available in this collection have been available on Blu-ray for quite some time (as individually packaged titles, as a part of The Masterpiece Collection, and as part of The Ultimate Collection), and these image and sound transfers are the same ones utilized for those earlier releases. What’s more, these discs include the same supplemental material. Interested parties can read more detailed information about each of the discs included in this set by clicking on the links below:

Saboteur

Shadow of a Doubt

Rope

Rear Window

The Trouble with Harry

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Psycho

The Birds

Marnie

Torn Curtain

Topaz

Frenzy

Family Plot

The House of Hitchcock also includes the two standard definition DVDs that focus on Hitchcock’s television work that originally appeared in The Ultimate Collection:

The Best of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents

This new disc showcases a single Alfred Hitchcock directed episode from all seven seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The following episodes are included:

Revenge (Season 1, Episode 1)

The series premiere of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is one of the show’s best episodes. It first aired on October 02, 1955 and starred Vera Miles and Ralph Meeker. Those who admire The Andy Griffith Show will also notice Frances Bavier in a supporting role. The story by Samuel Blas follows Carl and Elsa Spann, a newlywed couple just starting their life. Elsa has recently suffered a nervous breakdown but seems to be on her way to recovery. Unfortunately, Carl returns home from work one evening to find that his wife has been attacked. When the police prove to be unhelpful, Carl decides to get justice on his own.

Vera Miles gives a great performance here—a performance that looks forward to her portrayal of Rose Balestrero in Alfred Hitchcock’s under-appreciated docudrama, The Wrong Man.

Mr. Blanchard’s Secret (Season 2, Episode 13)

Mr. Blanchard’s Secret pales in comparison. The episode first aired on December 23, 1956 and starred Mary Scott, Robert Horton, Dayton Lummis, and Meg Mundy. The story by Emily Neff revisits some of the themes better explored in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Babs Fenton, a housewife with an overactive imagination who fancies herself a writer, believes that Mr. Blanchard has murdered his wife. However, her suspicions are called into serious question when Mrs. Blanchard shows up at their door looking to be very much alive. Babs alters her theory as to the reason behind Mr. Blanchard’s suspicious behavior only to be proven wrong once again.

Lamb to the Slaughter (Season 3, Episode 28)

Lamb to the Slaughter is rightly mentioned amongst the series best episodes. It aired on April 13, 1958 and stars Barbara Bel Geddes (who portrayed Midge in Vertigo that same year). The story by Roald Dahl follows a devoted housewife named Mary Maloney who decides to kill her cheating husband with a frozen leg of lamb rather than let him leave her. What follows is classic Hitchcock.

Poison (Season 4, Episode 1)

Poison—which was based upon another tale by Dahl—first aired on October 05, 1958 and stars Hitchcock alumnus Wendell Corey and James Donald. Harry Pope (Donald) wakes up with a poisonous snake in his bed. Worse, it finds a comfortable place to rest right on his chest. The entire episode is devoted to solving this tense predicament.

Arthur (Season 5, Episode 1)

Arthur first aired on September 27, 1959 and stars Laurence Harvey in the title role. Unusually for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, the story begins with Arthur standing amongst a large number of chickens as he addresses the audience directly. After this opening monologue, we flash back in time as he tells the viewer how he killed his gold-digging girlfriend and was able to get away with it. The story itself is rather amusing, but the framing device at the beginning and end doesn’t work very well (possibly because there is already an introduction and epilogue performed by Hitchcock).

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat (Season 6, Episode 1)

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is more benign than many episodes, but it has a very similar sense of irony. It originally aired on September 27, 1960 and stars Audrey Meadows, Les Tremayne, and Stephen Chase. The story by Roald Dahl follows Mrs. Bixby as she visits her secret lover “the Colonel,” who ends their affair but offers her a mink coat as a parting gift. She isn’t sure how to explain the coat to her husband, so she pawns the item without putting a description on the ticket. She then tells her husband that she has found the ticket and instructs him to turn it in for the pawned item. Obviously, things aren’t going to work out in quite the way that she expects.

Bang! You’re Dead! (Season 7, Episode 2)

Bang! You’re Dead! originally aired on October 17, 1961 and is the final episode that Alfred Hitchcock directed for the original half-hour series. It was based on a story by Margery Vosper and stars Billy Mumy as a young Jackie Chester—a spoiled six-year-old who mistakes a loaded gun for a gift from his uncle. The child then proceeds to pretend he is an outlaw and points it at the random people he meets throughout the day. It is only a matter of time before he actually pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, his family has discovered the mistake and tries frantically to locate him. Hitchcock’s gift for building suspense is evident throughout the duration.

Special Features:

This disc also includes a single special feature entitled Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Look Back. Gary Leva’s 15 minute featurette is far from a comprehensive examination of the series, but the retrospective interviews with Norman Lloyd, Hilton A. Green, and Patricia Hitchcock do reveal some general information about how the show was produced and those responsible for its success.

The Best of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

The second new disc showcases a single episode from all three seasons of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Unlike the first disc, only the first of these episodes is actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock since he only directed a single episode of this series. The following episodes are included:

I Saw the Whole Thing (Season 1, Episode 4)

I Saw the Whole Thing is the only episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that was actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It originally aired on October 11, 1962 and is based on a short story by Henry Cecil. Hitchcock alumnus John Forsythe portrays Michael Barnes in this Rashomon-like courtroom drama with an interesting twist. Barnes has been accused of causing a fatal car accident, but he insists that he is completely innocent and acts as his own attorney at his trial. In court, he proves that the various eyewitnesses called by the prosecution are unreliable.

Three Wives Too Many (Season 2, Episode 12)

Three Wives Too Many was directed by Joseph M. Newman and was based on a short story by Kenneth Fearing. It aired on January 03, 1964 and stars Hitchcock alumnus Teresa Wright, Linda Lawson, Jean Hale, and Dan Duryea. The story follows a bigamist who is suspected of murdering his various wives.

Death Scene (Season 3, Episode 20)

Death Scene was directed by Harvey Hart and was based on a story by Helen Nielsen. The episode aired on March 08, 1965 and features Hitchcock alumnus Vera Miles as Nicky Revere, the daughter of a movie director named Gavin Revere (John Carradine). It is best that viewers see this particular episode knowing as little as is possible about the actual story, but it is certainly one of the most memorable of the hour-long episodes.

Special Features:

This disc includes a single featurette entitled Fasten Your Seatbelt: The Thrilling Art of Alfred Hitchcock. This six minute fluff piece includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Eli Roth, and Joe Carnahan, but none of these filmmakers say anything particularly enlightening. It is almost like an EPK created to sell the idea of Hitchcock’s brilliance without ever revealing anything that isn’t immediately obvious.

Promotional photograph for 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' from 1955. .jpg

This photograph was used to promote ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents‘ in 1955.

It’s nice to have both of these new standard definition discs included here, but it is impossible not to wonder why Universal didn’t choose to release discs with each of the seventeen Hitchcock-directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his single episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour instead. Such a collection would have been a much more appropriate and satisfying addition to the package. What’s more, this approach would’ve only required one more disc (three instead of the two). Actually, it is ridiculous that Universal hasn’t already released these episodes together in a single collection.

In addition, one cannot help but lament some of the choices made by Universal as to which episodes to include. Some of these episodes are inferior to other Hitchcock-directed episodes from that respective season. For example, season two’s One More Mile to Go is vastly superior to Mr. Blanchard’s Secret. In fact, it is one of the best of the entire series. Of course, this particular issue wouldn’t be a problem if all of the Hitchcock directed episodes had been included.

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

HOH Contents

Universal’s ‘The House of Hitchcock’ packaging is a significant improvement over their previous Blu-ray sets. Both of those releases offered book-style packaging. This means that the various discs were housed in folder-like sleeves, and this particular approach leaves discs vulnerable to scratching and other types of damage. Since disc protection should always be a priority, it is nice to see that this collection protects the discs in actual cases. Unfortunately, three or four discs are housed together in only four cases instead of giving each film its own case and artwork. Those who believe that this is a space-saving technique are naïve. This keeps production costs down for Universal, and gives the consumer significantly less bang for the buck. Luckily, they do a fairly good job on the multi-film artwork.

A small book is also included. Those who have purchased one of the earlier sets will know exactly what to expect here. It adds quite a bit of value to the package even if there isn’t much in the way of information here (and some of it borders on being erroneous). It’s really just a fun bit of swag… and swag is what this release contains that the earlier two releases didn’t. There are fifteen art cards that feature the one sheet designs for each of the films included in the set. There are set blueprints for the infamous Psycho house, replicas of letters and memos, stationery with ‘Bates Motel’ printed on it (in case you want to make your friends back home feel envious), and a Psycho-themed “Please, Do Not Disturb” sign.

The theme and design of the package is a bit kitschy, and it is slightly bothersome that it is so Psycho-centric since there are fifteen films included here (and only one of those films is Psycho).

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Final Words:

The House of Hitchcock obviously contains a wealth of essential Hitchcock classics, but the discs included here are the same ones that have been available for quite some time. Those who already own these films on Blu-ray (either individually or as part of The Masterpiece Collection or The Ultimate Collection) can save their pennies.

Those who own The Ultimate Collection will already have the two ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ discs, and those who only own the films individually or as part of The Masterpiece Collection probably won’t feel that these two discs are worth the price of the set (especially considering the fact that they are in standard definition). What’s more, the swag contained in this new release can be filed under “less than meets the eye.” They certainly don’t warrant an upgrade on their own.

Review by: Devon Powell