Blu-ray Review: Rebecca – The Criterion Collection

Spine #135

Blu-ray Cover (No Sticker)

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 05, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 02:10:40

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.69 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available both individually and as part of The Premiere Collection boxed set (both with different cover art) in the DVD format and was given an incredible release in the same format by The Criterion Collection several years before that release.

The film was later given a lackluster Blu-ray release by MGM Home Entertainment both as part of a three-film set entitled, The Classic Collection and as an individual release.

Title

“Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really. The story is old-fashioned. There was a whole school of feminine literature at the period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is the story is lacking in humor.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Most of the contemporary critics and scholars tend to agree that the film belongs more to Selznick than to the director. In his book of essays about Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock) Donald Spoto writes:

“Hitchcock’s first American film won David O. Selznick the Oscar as producer of the best film of 1940. In fact, it’s more a Selznick film than it is Hitchcock. Depending on your mood, it’s either impossibly dated, woefully prolix as well as comically overstated every step of its long way—or it’s deliciously entertaining, the kind of gothic romantic hokum they don’t make anymore. Or both…” -Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

We have trouble understanding how any movie made in 1939 and released in 1940 can be “impossibly dated,” but one must certainly admit the validity of Spoto’s assertion that the film could be perceived as “woefully prolix.” This would be the result of Selznick’s insistence that entire paragraphs of the novel’s dialogue should be included in the script—even if the same points might be made visually or with less ornate verbiage. Selznick’s fingerprints are all over the film to be certain, but it would be an incredible injustice and completely misleading to ignore the fact that Hitchcock’s influence is just as dominant and can be seen in every frame—and there are traces of the director’s humor on evidence (even if he would later claim otherwise).

As a matter of fact, Hitchcock had been interested in purchasing the rights to Daphne du Maurier’s source novel while he was still working in England but the cost of the property proved prohibitive. This and the fact that Rebecca contains elements that Hitchcock would return to in his later work should be evidence of the director’s sincere affection for the material. Rebecca might not be the version of the film that Hitchcock originally wanted to make, but the director was wrong when he claimed that it isn’t a Hitchcock picture. It is a Hitchcock film, but it is a Selznick production of a Hitchcock film. This subtle distinction is what really bothered the director.

“While, in many respects, Rebecca was very personal to Hitchcock—allowing him to explore more clearly than ever before his deepest thematic concerns—the film belongs as much to its producer as it does to its director. Hitchcock appears to have undertaken the film with certain misapprehensions: that he would have the full control he’d been accustomed to; that he could adapt the source novel as freely as he pleased; that he could insert touches of his typical British humor (his early draft had Maxim and his anonymous wife meeting on a channel steamer, with Maxim bringing on her seasickness by blowing smoke in her face!). Hitchcock was swiftly disillusioned. Selznick insisted on the strictest fidelity to du Maurier that censorship would permit, oversaw the entire production, and asserted his contractual right to final cut.” –Robin Wood (Rebecca: The Two Mrs. de Winters)

To be fair, the Monte Carlo sequence works much better than this would have, because the audience understands that Maxim de Winter has been away from Manderley for quite some time in an effort to forget his past. It is also much more mysterious. However, the pages of endless dialogue work much better in the novel, and the film is at its best when Hitchcock is allowed to tell the story in a visual manner. What’s more, Selznick’s generic cutting style wouldn’t have benefited the film. Luckily, Alfred Hitchcock knew a way around Selznick’s final cut and was one of the few directors capable of forcing aspects of his own personal vision upon the producer by cutting in the camera so that the footage could only be assembled in the manner that Hitchcock envisioned. Selznick wasn’t a fan of what he called the director’s “damned jigsaw cutting,” but this is exactly what he was paying for when he brought Hitchcock to America.

In retrospect, it might be said that much of what hasn’t dated in the film seems to belong more to Hitchcock than to Selznick. This may be an oversimplification, but Selznick’s insistence on fidelity created a more literary melodrama with more unnecessarily protracted dialogue than is typical of a director who prefers to tell his stories visually. If the film seems dated to contemporary audiences, this is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons. Another side effect of Selznick’s meddling is the sometimes overwrought and syrupy score provided by the talented Franz Waxman. Selznick obviously didn’t trust Hitchcock’s wonderful visuals to make their point and musical punctuation overwhelms what might have been poignant subtleties had the director been left to his own devices. The score is very good at conveying the film’s gothic and ghostly atmosphere, but there is more “Mickey Mousing” than is necessary, and there are cheesy (and unnecessary)musical punctuations every time a character reacts to something. The production values also seem to belong to Selznick, and Alfred Hitchcock has gone on record about his disappointment about the film’s production design. Rebecca has a gloss that is tonally different than even the glossiest of Hitchcock’s later films. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend on the viewer.

On final analysis, Rebecca is a brilliant Hitchcock/Selznick hybrid that rightfully earned eleven Academy Awards nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best ScoreBest Visual Effects) and won in the Best Picture and Best Cinematography categories. The film is required viewing and marks an extremely important benchmark in not only Hitchcock’s career but also his artistic evolution. The stormy production created by a thunderous crashing of two giant egos resulted in more than a great film. It resulted in the creative growth of an already brilliant director.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has once again given cinephiles a beautiful Blu-ray package. The special 2-disc set looks like most of their standard single disc releases. Both discs are housed in their standard clear case with a cover sleeve featuring an attractive painting by Robert Hunt.

Inside the case, there is a collector’s booklet that features an essay by David Thomson entitled “Welcome to the Haunted House.” Thomson is the author of a long list of film-related books, including: Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, The Moment of ‘Psycho,’ Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, Scorsese on Scorsese, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, Moments That Made the Movies, and a ridiculous number of other titles. This reviewer found some of his scholarly insights somewhat questionable, and wonder why Criterion didn’t simply utilize the two essays that were included in their original DVD release years ago. These essays were written by Robin Wood and George E. Turner, and they were more informative than this new piece.

Luckily, Criterion more than makes up for this minor issue by including a section entitled “Hitchcock vs. Selznick.” This section is essentially a collection of four memos from the production of Rebecca (all of which were featured on the second disc of their DVD release several years ago) with a short introduction by David Thomson. One must admit that having these memos collected in a booklet is preferable to including them on one of the discs as it makes them much easier to read, and their inclusion here makes this booklet a significant addition to the overall package. Our only complaint is that more memos weren’t included. It would’ve been incredibly awesome if Criterion had included a larger book containing all of the memos that were included on their earlier release of Rebecca!

Menu

Menu 2

Both disc menus make use of production stills and Franz Waxman’s score, and they are up to Criterion’s usual high standards. Those who own other Criterion discs will know exactly what to expect.

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

There is every reason in the world to be excited about Criterion’s new 4K restoration transfer of Rebecca. As is their usual practice, they include information about their restoration in the collector’s booklet:

“This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director Film scanner at Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, California, from the 35mm nitrate original camera negative. Digital restoration was undertaken by the Motion Picture Imaging Group…” –Collector’s Booklet

The result is beyond stunning as there is an incredible improvement in quality when one compares this release with the earlier MGM Home Entertainment release. For one thing, the grain structure has been improved upon and is better resolved. There is a more film-like quality to the overall image in this release, as it exhibits a very natural contrast and better black levels (which are incredibly deep without crushing). Fine detail is also vastly improved, density is much better and indeed quite impressive, and stability is terrific. It also looks absolutely incredible in motion. The image has been cleaned of any distracting blemishes (such as age chemical imperfections, stains, scratches, cuts, dirt, and other damage). There also aren’t any signs of overzealous manipulation or improper compression.

The only negative aspect of the new transfer is that there seems to be marginally less information on the sides of the frame when compared to the other releases, but there is more information at the top of the frame. You might say that everything evens out rather nicely in this respect. In any case, this seems to be the only aspect of this new release that nitpickers will have to complain about. Everything else is beyond reproach, and the reasonably high bitrate makes the most of their beautiful work.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

The film’s soundtrack was also given a new restoration by Criterion.

“…The soundtrack was re-mastered from the original soundtrack negative at Chace by Deluxe in Burbank and restored by Disney Digital Studio Services. Additional restoration was performed by the Criterion Collection using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX…” –Collector’s Booklet

The resulting uncompressed monaural (Linear PCM) audio track is as good as anyone has a right to expect, although it isn’t quite the upgrade in quality that the image received. As a matter of fact, it is relatively identical to the MGM track in many respects. The differences between the two tracks will be directly related to Criterion’s efforts to clean the track of imperfections. While the mono mix cannot be described as dynamic, it is certainly faithful to the original as it exhibits clear and well-prioritized dialogue, a good representation of Franz Waxman’s score, and the effects are strong and undistorted. The flat nature of this extremely old track may disappoint modern ears, but purists are certain to appreciate the final result.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

When Criterion originally released Rebecca as a two-disc set in the DVD format, it was impossible to imagine that anyone would ever include a superior supplemental package for the film. However, this release contains quite a bit more material than that release, and not a single one of these added features could possibly be described as “filler.” Everything included here should be an incredibly fulfilling experience for anyone who admires Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Daphne du Maurier, or classic cinema in general.

There are over 3 hours and 56 minutes of video-based supplemental entertainment on the disc—the accumulation of which would have easily earned the disc a five-star rating all on its own. However, they have also included over 3 hours and 30 minutes of audio based supplements (and this isn’t even counting the commentary track)!

Disc One

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Leonard J. Leff

Leonard J. Leff is the author of Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood. The book is a well-researched and incredibly comprehensive account of Hitchcock’s working relationship with David O. Selznick and the films that Alfred Hitchcock made during that period. Frankly, it is one of a handful of books on the director that is absolutely essential.  Leff brings some of this knowledge to this track, but it leans more towards scholarly analysis. We have no doubt that this will likely disappoint a lot of fans. However, Leff’s archival Criterion track is a much better commentary than the one provided by the late Richard Schickel for the MGM release. Some might be put off by the dry and decidedly academic tone, but those who give it a fair chance will find it well worth their time.

Isolated Music and Effects Track

This feature allows audiences to experience the film with only the music and sound effects. It is presented in the Linear PCM format.

The Making of Rebecca – (28:02)

Film historians discuss the uneasy relationship between David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock during the making of the film. It offers more generalized “behind the scenes” information than many of the more comprehensive documentaries of its kind, but there is enough information to make the viewing experience rich and rewarding. It was nice to learn that Criterion decided to port this over from the earlier MGM DVD and Blu-ray releases as this set would have suffered considerably without it.

Conversation between Molly Haskell and Patricia White – (24:39)

Molly Haskell and Patricia White discuss the film’s enduring appeal as well as some of the thematic concerns that contribute to that its ongoing popularity. The conversation is decidedly casual but always intelligent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t delve terribly deep into the themes discussed with specific examples that illustrate their observations. It is certainly a worthwhile addition to the disc’s supplemental package, but one wishes that the conversation delved a bit deeper.

Theatrical Re-release Trailer – (02:23)

One wishes that the film’s original release trailer could have been included here, but is always nice to see vintage trailers included on a disc and this is no exception. It exploits the success of the film’s original release as well as its well-documented awards success.

Disc Two

Daphne du Maurier: In the Footsteps of Rebecca – (55:03)

Elisabeth Aubert Schlumberger’s hour-long documentary about the life of Daphne du Maurier was originally produced for French television and is a multi-lingual production presented in both French and English. Much of the information divulged is revealed through the French narration, but there are a number of English language interviews and some archival footage of the author. One of the more interesting elements featured within the film is the BBC footage of the author taken later in her life.

Those disappointed about the omission of Criterion’s essay about du Maurier can rest assured that the inclusion of this program more than makes up for its absence, as it is much more in-depth and engaging.

Alfred Hitchcock on NBC’s Tomorrow – (44:03)

In 1975, NBC’s Tomorrow devoted an entire episode to the “Master of Suspense” and it is included here in all of its fabulous glory. The director is certainly feeling his age here but he is still an extremely entertaining raconteur. The Tom Snyder interview covers a wide variety of topics, including cockney rhyming slang, his film work, entertaining stories, his then-upcoming film (Family Plot), and a wide variety of other engaging topics. Some of this will be a rehash for a lot of fans, but there is quite a bit of unique material as well.

Joan Fontaine on NBC’s Tomorrow – (17:11)

Almost as great as the amazing interview with Alfred Hitchcock is this incredibly charming interview with Joan Fontaine from a 1980 episode of Tomorrow (again hosted by Tom Snyder). The actress has a dignified grace and an undeniable charm that takes the viewer by surprise. She candidly discusses her rivalry with Olivia de Havilland as well as the production of Rebecca, her then current projects, politics, old Hollywood, and aging. Every word of it is a pleasure to witness, and it is an incredible addition to the package.

Casting Gallery with Notes by Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick

It is nice to see that Criterion has included memorandum between Alfred Hitchcock about casting the unknown protagonist eventually played by Joan Fontaine. These memos discuss various actresses considered for the part in no uncertain terms, and it all makes for instructive reading. The text is illustrated with publicity photos of the various talent discussed. All of this provides strong contextual information for the screen tests that have also been included on the disc.

Screen Tests:

Unlike the previous MGM Blu-ray, this new Criterion release has ported over their entire collection of tests from their earlier (now out of print) Blu-ray release. These are priceless production artifacts from one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most important film, and it is instructive to see what he and Selznick were up against. In total, there are over 41 minutes of screen test footage from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the era!

Here is a list of the various tests included on the disc and their respective durations:

Joan Fontaine – (07:57)

Vivien Leigh (with Laurence Olivier) – (05:03)

Vivien Leigh (with Alan Marshall) – (04:02)

Anne Baxter – (11:48)

Margaret Sullavan – (07:52)

Loretta Young – (04:45)

Hair and Makeup Tests – (03:14)

These hair and makeup tests are presented in a kind of split screen and features Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, and Vivien Leigh in various wigs and make-up designs. There is a short contextual introductory commentary by Leonard Leff that plays over the beginning of this silent footage. It is evident from these tests just how late in the process final casting decisions were made It is an incredible treat to glimpse this sort of test footage from such an old classic!

Costume Tests – (02:57)

Joan Fontaine’s costume tests are equally interesting as they showcase Joan Fontaine in various costumes—some of which weren’t included in the final film. If the actress looks less than enthusiastic, this is due to the fact that she was under an enormous physical and emotional strain during the weeks leading to the production. Needless to say, this raw footage is of enormous value to Hitchcock fans and devotees of classic cinema.

Interview with Craig Barron about Rebecca’s Visual Effects – (17:28)

This Criterion interview with Craig Barron is essential for anyone interested in special effects. The viewer is taken through a number of effects included in the film as they are explained in a very general way. Some will already know much of this information, but others will find it revelatory. It should certainly add to one’s appreciation of the film.

1986 Phone Interview with Joan Fontaine – (20:15)

Joan Fontaine speaks affectionately about Hitchcock and discusses working with the director during the set of Rebecca. She is articulate and incredibly charming throughout the entire length of the interview, and she leaves us wanting to hear more about her days in Hollywood. Fans should be very pleased to have this carried over from Criterion’s earlier disc because it is a very instructive twenty minutes.

1986 Phone Interview with Dame Judith Anderson – (10:42)

Judith Anderson’s interview is equally informative and articulate, and it is really a treat to listen to the actress as she talks about her experiences shooting the film, and the differences between acting on the stage and the screen. I dare say that interviews with Judith Anderson are rather rare, so having this included here is a wonderful treat.

Campbell Playhouse Radio Broadcast (1938) – (59:54)

Perhaps the most interesting of the three radio adaptations of Rebecca—although each version is interesting for very different reasons—is this first episode of Campbell Playhouse, the radio program produced by Orson Welles. The program followed closely behind the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast and featured Welles in the role of Maxim de Winter, Margaret Sullivan as the second Mrs. De Winter, Mildred Natwick as Mrs. Danvers, Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Van Hopper, and an assortment of other “Mercury Players.” It also features a music score by Bernard Herrmann (who would go on to score a number of Alfred Hitchcock’s most beloved films).

Those who notice the identical dialogue should be reminded that this isn’t an indication that the film was directly influenced by this radio adaptation because both productions drew directly from Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel. One element of the program that should be of special interest to both fans of the film and the novel is the short television conversation with this esteemed author. It seems scripted and isn’t particularly informative—but what it lacks in information, it makes up for in cheekiness and novelty. It is probably the highlight of the entire broadcast.

Lux Radio Theatre Broadcast (1941) – (59:00)

Following the success of the Selznick/Hitchcock film version of Rebecca was this Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film starring Ronald Colman as Maxim de Winter, Ida Lupino as the second Mrs. de Winter, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. Interestingly, Ronald Coleman was considered for the role of Maxim in the film version, but the actor chose not to appear in that landmark production.

The program aired on February 03, 1941 during Rebecca’s Academy Awards campaign, of which this particular broadcast was very much a part. (The Oscars were held on the 27th of that same month.) Speaking of awards, Cecil B. DeMille presents David O. Selznick with an award from Fame magazine for his work as a producer at the end of the program.

Lux Radio Theatre Broadcast (1950) – (01:00:35)

In light of the fact that both Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh had lobbied quite aggressively for Leigh to win the role of “I” in Hitchcock’s film version, this radio program (which was produced an entire decade later) offers listeners the opportunity to experience the ex-Scarlet in this very different role. It is a rather instructive experience, but most will be quite happy that the part was given to Joan Fontaine after hearing Leigh in this radio version—that is if seeing the screen tests didn’t already convince you. In addition to Olivier and Leigh, Betty Blythe can be heard in the role of Mrs. Danvers.

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WHAT WASN’T INCLUDED?

With such a mind-boggling collection of wonderful extras, it seems almost ungrateful to complain about the few features that haven’t been ported over from previous releases of the film, but one imagines that most people who are considering an upgrade will be wondering about this particular matter.

There are quite a few text-based features from the original Criterion release that didn’t make its way to this new package—including an essay on Daphne du Maurier, the final results of a test screening questionnaire, an article about differences from the novel, and some of the production memorandum. However, most of the memos can be found here in some form. For example, that early release contained a gallery entitled “We Intend to Make ‘Rebecca,’” that featured several pre-production memos. These have all been included as part of the collector’s booklet. The memo’s found in the section of that disc entitled “The Search for ‘I’’’ have been included on this disc to contextualize the disc’s collection of screen tests. Frankly, these omissions aren’t particularly troubling. The same information is covered elsewhere on the disc. For example, the information found in the essay about Daphne du Maurier is more than covered in the included documentary about the author.

There is also a huge gallery of photos included on that release that wasn’t included here, but this hardly seems worth mentioning. The photos are certainly fascinating, but one grows weary clicking through such a gallery—and the same can be said about the aforementioned text screens.

More unfortunate is the exclusion of the 1940 Annual Academy Awards Ceremony Footage (01:37). The footage was silent but a commentary by Leonard Leff was included for this feature. It is strange that Criterion didn’t carry over this short clip.

Even more troubling is the exclusion of the excerpt from Hitchcock’s Interview with Francois Truffaut (Criterion – 07:54) and (MGM – 09:15), which was included in some form on both the earlier Criterion DVD and the MGM Blu-ray release. Considering the fact that their other Hitchcock Blu-rays have included this feature, it is extremely strange to discover that Criterion doesn’t include it here. The excerpt from Hitchcock’s Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (04:20) is also not carried over to this release but was included on MGM’s Blu-ray edition.

It is easier to understand the exclusion of a short featurette from the MGM Blu-ray entitled The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier (19:02). After all, the documentary that is included in this package (Daphne du Maurier: In the Footsteps of ‘Rebecca’) covers the same territory and in more depth. However, it would’ve been nice to have it included here as it is a charming primer and could’ve made a nice companion to the longer documentary.

One doesn’t miss MGM’s Commentary with Richard Schickel, but it is another curious omission. To be perfectly honest, Schickel’s commentary was incredibly sparse. He seemed bored as he mumbled his way through the track. He didn’t say very much and what he said usually wasn’t rich with information. It’s difficult to enjoy listening to an apathetic commentator. Perhaps Criterion understood this and didn’t want their disc marred by such a track.

Everything else is here and most will agree that this is the edition to own.

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Final Words:

The Criterion Collection’s release of Rebecca covers the film’s production in such a comprehensive manner that it altered our approach to this article. We usually include a rather detailed production history for the Hitchcock films that we review. However, in this particular instance, such an approach could potentially rob certain viewers of the richly rewarding experience provided by this outstanding supplemental package. Both this and the incredible image and sound transfers make this Blu-ray package an easy recommendation. It is absolutely essential.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: The Lodger – The Criterion Collection

Spine #885

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 27, 2017

Region: Region A

Length:

The Lodger – 01:30:24

Downhill – 01:50:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

The Lodger – 2.0 Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 2304 kbps, 24-bit)

Downhill – 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 kbps)

Ratio:

The Lodger – 1.33:1

Downhill – 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Lodger – 29.36 Mbps

Downhill – 15.09 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray debut of “The Lodger,” but the film was given a DVD release by MGM. Unfortunately, the MGM edition is now out of print. The release also marks the Blu-ray debut of “Downhill.”

Title

The Master Finds His Voice

PART ONE: THE LODGER

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influence by my period in Germany. The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me. It was the first time I exercised my style. In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture… I took a pure narrative and for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is rather easy to understand why Alfred Hitchcock considers The Lodger his true film debut, and the most obvious reason for this was his choice of subject matter.

“I had seen a play called ‘Who Is He?’ based on Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s novel ‘The Lodger.’ The action was set in a house that took in roomers and the landlady wondered whether her new boarder was Jack the Ripper or not…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Obviously, the property was ideal for a Hitchcock project and the director tackled every aspect of the production with unprecedented relish. He had already worked with Eliot Stannard on the scripts for both The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle and brought the writer on board to help with The Lodger as well.

 “With the director whispering in his ear, Eliot Stannard wrote the script over the first two months of 1926; then Hitchcock went back over it one last time, breaking it down into several hundred master scenes, making notes and little sketches to guide each camera setup, ‘each one specifying the exact grouping and action of the characters and the placing of the camera,’ in his words. The script was always written with the flow of pictures in mind, but storyboarding was the final revision. Stannard was encouraged to suggest visual ideas, but again the more important contributor was the expert in continuity and cutting: Alma.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film to feature a man wrongly accused of a crime was considered a major compromise by the director.

“Of course, strictly speaking, he should have been the Ripper and gone on his way. That’s how Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes wrote the book. But Ivor Novello was the matinee idol of the period and could not be the murderer. The same thing was true of Cary Grant in Suspicion many years later. So, obviously, putting that kind of actor into this sort of film is a mistake because you just have to compromise.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock claimed that he would have preferred to have the Lodger “go off in the night so that we would never really know for sure” if he is guilty of the murders or simply an eccentric innocent. This particular ending reminds one of Hitchcock’s ending for The Birds. It is impossible to guess how audiences of the time might have welcomed such an ending, but it is easy to imagine it having an extremely powerful effect on the viewer.

“The script satisfied the front office concerns that Novello’s character be proved innocent. But that left the second issue: Novello was a stiff, mannered actor, whose technique leaned heavily on his repertoire of tedious ‘handsome’ poses. That was a challenge to be addressed in the directing, but one Hitchcock had already anticipated, incorporating into the shooting script a brooding visual design to eclipse Novello’s flaws.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ivor Novello

Ivor Novello was one of Britain’s biggest matinee idols when he starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

Vintage newspapers and trade articles suggest that the film entered production in the early months of 1926 (as early as February), although Patrick McGilligan suggests that principal photography didn’t begin until March. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surviving production documents from this period in Hitchcock’s career, so a specific date is impossible to pinpoint. However, one can say with some degree of authority that some of Hitchcock’s already established crew returned to bring The Lodger to the screen—and Alma’s work as his assistant director and editor is no doubt the most significant. Baron Ventimiglia also returned as the film’s primary cameraman and lavish sets were designed by C. Wilfred Arnold.

Of course, certain scenes were shot on location which could sometimes be a significant logistical challenge for a film crew even in the silent era. In fact, one particular scene was such an ordeal that it still haunted the director over a decade later when he related his experience to the News Chronicle.

“…The thing I wanted above all else was to do a night scene in London, preferably on the embankment. I wanted to silhouette the mass of Charing Cross Bridge against the sky. I wanted to get away from the (at the time) inevitable shot of Piccadilly Circus with hand-painted lights.

The story demanded the dragging of a body out of the river. Here, I thought was my chance. But Scotland Yard said, ‘No.’ We pulled strings. We used influence. We went from step to step until we were within shouting distance of the Home Secretary. Scotland Yard says ‘No.’ but we were told that, if we did shoot the scene, we should not be stopped. That’s how we always used to get our permission: told usually in a hint, that authorities would turn a blind eye on us.

So we went down to the Embankment. We took two sets of light vans—that does not mean vans for light work. It means vans to carry lights. We had ‘sun arcs’—huge, powerful lights to give a real background. Otherwise, the brilliantly lit close-up shots would seem to have been photographed against black velvet. We parked the vans in the middle of the roadway on Westminster Bridge. We massed the arcs on the parapet of the bridge. We went to the Embankment and started shooting.

We took our short shots. They were fine. But I was concentrating on the long shot. Every time a tram passed we had to disconnect the cables that lay across the lines. Work below had to be held up until the lights came on again. But finally, we shot the big scene. The sun arcs turned night to day. The artists did their stuff. The bridge stood out clear and sharp. The camera turned.

The number of the scene was 45. It should have been 13. For when we went to the projection room, to see the rushes—the first prints of the day’s takings—there was no scene 45. We looked through all the reels. We looked through all the prints. We looked through positive and negative. There was no scene 45. The cameraman forgot to put his lens in the camera. That has happened more than once: call it tragedy or farce.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Arrival

The influence of German Expressionism can be seen in nearly every frame of The Lodger and would be a large part of Alfred Hitchcock’s aesthetic throughout his entire career.

Of course, the studio work went much more smoothly, and the director was very much in his element. Hitchcock’s time in Germany had a profound impact on the director’s artistic sensibilities, and The Lodger perhaps the first time expressionism becomes a major part of his aesthetic.

 “You have to remember that a year before, I was working on the UFA lot. I worked there for many months—at the same time [that] Jannings was making The Last Laugh with Murnau—and I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s actors took notice of his unusually meticulous attention to framing, sets, and lighting design as they met the challenges that this attention to detail sometimes created for them.

“‘Fresh from Berlin,’ recalled June [Tripp], ‘Hitch was so imbued with the value of unusual camera angles and lighting effects with which to create and sustain dramatic suspense that often a scene which would not run for more than three minutes on the screen would take an entire morning to shoot.’ ‘Once,’ she said, she was forced to carry ‘an iron tray of breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs’ some twenty times before Hitchcock was ‘satisfied with the expression of fear on my face and the atmosphere established by light and shadows.’” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Spending an entire morning on a scene is certainly not uncommon nowadays, but this was apparently less common in Britain during the mid-1920s. Alfred Hitchcock was a unique entity in the British film industry and went the extra mile to achieve his visual goals. This is more than obvious in the very first frames of The Lodger wherein what seems to be a simple shot of a woman screaming actually took quite a bit of creative ingenuity to achieve.

“We opened with the head of a blonde girl who is screaming. I remember the way I photographed it. I took a sheet of glass, placed the girl’s head on the glass and spread her hair around until it filled the frame. Then we lit the glass from behind so that one would be struck by her light hair. Then we cut to show an electric sign advertising a musical play, ‘Tonight, Golden Curls,’ with the reflection flickering in the water. The girl has drowned…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the director was always quick to point out that many of the film’s lauded visual flourishes were the product of the silent era. The limitations of the medium made it necessary for director’s to pictorialize sound in a clear and concise manner. A perfect example of this technique would be the celebrated invisible ceiling scene.

“In his room the man paces up and down. You must remember that we had no sound in those days, so I had a plate-glass floor made through which you could see the lodger moving back and forth, causing the chandelier in the room below to move with him. Naturally, many of these visual devices would be absolutely superfluous today because we would use sound effects instead. The sound of steps and so on… Today, I would simply use the swaying chandelier.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Hitchcock’s one inch thick plate glass ceiling was only six square feet, but this was large enough to sell the sound of the footsteps in a visual manner. This makes it clear to viewers that the chandelier is swinging because the lodger is pacing back and forth in his room. There were other examples of visualizing sound throughout the film, but the best (and certainly the most famous) of these is probably the staircase shot showing the lodger’s hand going down a handrail. Shots of the lodger leaving his room and eventually the house is alternated with shots of Mrs. Bunting listening to his movements. It is quite clear that she hears him leaving and is becoming suspicious of her new tenant.

“Just as much as the set I had built for when the lodger went out late at night—almost to the ceiling of the studio, showing four flights of stairs and a handrail. And all you see is a hand going down. That was, of course, from the point of view of the mother listening. Today, we would substitute sound for that. Although, I think that the handrail shot would be worthy of today in addition to sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

The Lodger Leaving

After six weeks of shooting, principal photography wrapped on The Lodger—but all of Hitchcock’s hard work was very nearly in vain. Unfortunately, the director had a few enemies at the studio. One of his biggest foes was his old friend and mentor, Graham Cutts (who was once considered one of the greatest directors in Britain). Hitchcock had served as his screenwriter, art director, and assistant director on a number of his films.

In fact, Hitchcock began building sets so that they could only be shot in a certain way—Hitchcock’s way. People started to notice that the success of these films owed as much to Hitchcock’s work as to his mentor’s directorial abilities—and Cutts made his dissatisfaction about these things known by firing his protégé. Some scholars suggest that Cutts also resented that Michael Balcon assigned Ivor Novello to Hitchcock’s film after having directed the actor in his star-making turn in The Rat (1925) and The Triumph of the Rat (1926). Whatever the case may be, it is enough to understand that Graham Cutts was under the influence of the green-eyed-monster and this resulted in a bitter enemy for the future master of suspense.

“After seeing an early screening of The Lodger, [Cutts] told ‘anybody who would listen that we had a disaster on our hands,’ said Michael Balcon.

Another diehard was C.M. Woolf, who still held Hitchcock partially responsible for the fiasco of The White Shadow. He had opposed Hitchcock’s promotion to director; now, paranoid that an ‘artistic’ picture could not be easily launched into the maximum number of English theaters, Woolf convened a high-level screening…” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

This screening was very nearly the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and the director would retell the terrible story in interviews for the rest of his life:

“It was first shown to the staff of the distribution company and the head of their publicity department. They saw the film and then made their report to the boss: ‘Impossible to show it. Too bad. The film is terrible.’ Two days later the big boss [C.M. Woolf] came down to the studio to look at it. He arrived at two-thirty. Mrs. Hitchcock and I couldn’t bear to wait in the studio to know the results and we walked the streets of London for an hour and a half. Finally, we took a cab and went back. We were hoping out promenade would have a happy ending and that everyone in the studio would be beaming. What they said was: ‘The boss says it’s terrible.’ And they put the film on the shelf, canceled the bookings that had been made on the basis of Novello’s reputation.

A few months later, they decided to take another look at the picture and to make some changes. I agreed to make about two. As soon as the picture was shown, it was acclaimed as the greatest British film made up to that date.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Actually, there is a bit more to the film’s resurrection than Hitchcock’s retelling would suggest. The truth is that Michael Balcon believed in both Hitchcock and the film. What’s more, the studio had quite a bit of money invested. It seemed worthwhile to give the film another chance, so the producer held another private screening—this time for an impartial party.

“Hitchcock—a shadowy figure at that time, whom I vaguely knew by name—had just finished a picture and [Michael Balcon] could not get the distributor to show it. He had taken a risk in promoting Hitch from floor assistant actually to direct. (Mick, all his life, loved recruiting fresh talent to direction, and this was not the least of his blessings to British film production.) But this was now not Hitch’s first picture for the company but his third, and the distributor would have none of any of them. The mounting unused investment was becoming impossible for Balcon to defend…

…They ran the film, with which at once I fell enthusiastically in love. Now, the hackneyed treatment of the plot and a weakness in characterization makes it look primitive. Then, by contrast with the work of his seniors and contemporaries, all Hitch’s special qualities stood out raw: the narrative skill, the ability to tell the story and create the tension in graphic combination, and the feeling for London scenes and characters.” —Ivor Montagu (Working with Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Graham Cutts
Graham Cutts was once Hitchcock’s friend and mentor, but he soon became one of his strongest adversaries: “I suspect that the director who had me fired as his assistant was still being political against me. I know he told someone, ‘I don’t know what he’s shooting. I can’t make head nor tail of it.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

The result of this showing should be obvious considering that Hitchcock is now considered one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs—but first there was quite a bit of work to do on The Lodger before it could be granted a release.

“[Montagu] was in something of a quandary, since he could hardly say that he didn’t think the film needed anything done to it. Finally, his solution was to get together with Hitch and suggest a couple of points in the film where something might be clarified by re-editing, plus some re-shooting of the final chase sequence where it was originally too dark to see details (Hitch willingly complied with this, since apart from anything else it meant an effective addition to his budget and shooting time for the film). The only radical modification Montagu suggested was to make the film more extreme in one area where Hitch had experimented cautiously. British films at this time were very heavy on titles, and British filmmakers knew little or nothing of the movement abroad in favor of telling the story as completely as possible in visual terms. Hitch had seen this done in Germany, but he knew how conservative his employers were, and so had left little to chance in verbal explanations of what was happening. Montagu told them that they should go all the way, reduce the titles to an absolute minimum and make those that were left as punchy and to the point as possible. Since he qualified as an outside expert whom they were paying good money (if not very much of it) to advise them, they took his word for it. He went ahead eliminating and tightening the titles, and brought in E. McKnight Kauffer, the painter and poster designer who was at the time considered very advanced, to design the credits and the title backgrounds.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of this additional work seems to have paid off because the film was a commercial and critical success. Nearly every critic focused largely on Hitchcock’s adept direction. An excellent example of such praise can be found in a review published in the Daily Mail.

“Here is a British film which grips the imagination… The very angles at which these scenes are photographed create terror, and the exquisite homeliness of the settings piles up apprehension. Mr. Novello has never appeared to such advantage, Miss June is natural and pretty as the heroine, and Miss Marie Ault [is] magnificent as the motherly but frightened landlady. The Lodger [is] the second fine British film this week and can more than hold its own against any foreign production. It is arresting without being in any way gruesome.” –Daily Mail (September 15, 1926)

Meanwhile, a similar review was published in the Nottingham Evening Post that very same day.

“There is further satisfactory proof of the fact that British films are on the upgrade in The Lodger… The story is adapted from the novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, and is a first-class attraction of the mystery order, with a series of sensational murders of fair-haired girls, committed by some individual who apparently does not prefer blondes

The direction of this theme by Alfred Hitchcock, a young Englishman who has little to learn from Hollywood in the technique of his craft, judging from some very original and clever devices in this picture, ensures its effectiveness. Ivor Novello gives a striking and arresting performance as the Lodger, against whom suspicion is pointed, and there is a charming heroine in the pretty musical-comedy actress popular with playgoers as ‘June.’” –Nottingham Evening Post (September 15, 1926)

The Sydney Morning Herald was especially enthusiastic about the film.

The Lodger is a film of a distinctly unusual type. When one looks back on its plot, to be sure, there seems to be nothing remarkable about it as a whole: but in the working out of the details there is much to absorb the spectator’s interest. Such originality can be easily explained, for the picture was made in England, and on this account escaped that contagion of methods and ideas which tends to standardize the output of Hollywood. The whole of the actors are English; also the director (Alfred Hitchcock). As a matter of fact, the acting throughout is very fine. Ivor Novello, who heads the cast, is every whit as handsome as the best-looking of the American leading men; and he is fortunate in having a face that photographs well from every angle. But In addition to being handsome, he has dramatic depth and fire. Some may object to his first entrance, and his actions in general during the earlier part of the play as being too theatrical, too artificial, slowed down as they are to a portentous languor; yet they form part of a deeply considered conception of the character, and fit exactly into their place in the light of subsequent revelations. For The Lodger is a mystery play. Not a thing of shrieks, and haunted houses, and grisly corpses, however. No. It is much more subtle than that. In fact, at the end the real motive for the series of murders, and the real perpetrator of them, are never revealed at all. They do not matter — they have served their purpose in the plot, and can be left freely to the imagination of the spectators to fill in at will. To presume the murderer merely a homicidal lunatic will provide an explanation as good as any. Surely this policy of vagueness is better than the plan usually followed by playwrights, of pitching on one of the characters at random and crying, ‘Behold the man!’ By methods too detailed to be explained here at length, the director has made some of the episodes remarkably gripping in their suggestion of the sinister. Indeed, for those interested in the technical side of motion picture production the whole film will repay close study. Besides Mr. Novello the cast includes Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, Malcolm Keen, and ‘June.’” -Sydney Morning Herald (February 20, 1928)

The First Hitchcock Cameo

The first Hitchcock cameo: “It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag. But now it’s a rather troublesome gag, and I’m very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is interesting to note that special mention is always made as to the film’s British origins and that the actors re discussed in a manner that betrays a public familiarity with their names. It might be easy for modern viewers to forget that these performers were both popular and well regarded at the time of the film’s release. In other words, the film was presented as a prestige project. Unfortunately, even prestige productions aren’t immune to critical condescension as this review in The Times adequately illustrates.

 “‘To-night… Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

Mr. Hitchcock has used the electric sky-sign, advertising a revue, as a symbol that appears again and again throughout his narrative. After its first appearance we see a murdered girl lying on the ground; she is the Avenger’s sixth victim and, in common with all the others, she has light hair. The news spreads. The tape-machine ticks it out; the printers print it; the newspaper vans distribute it; the chorus of Golden Curls read it in their dressing-room and the mannequins at a dressmaking establishment read it in theirs. There is, it seems, not a fair-haired woman in London that does not tremble in her decorative underclothes and go in terror of her life. Yet, though we see them tremble, we do not participate in their fear. The dark atmosphere of terror and the steady regard for character which were the making of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s book are dissipated by the sky-signs, the tape-machine, the frocks, and the absence of frocks. It is Jack-the-Ripper or the Avenger who should be brooding over London; instead it is ‘Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

And when a stranger knocks at the door of Daisy Bunting’s parents and asks for a lodging in their house; when we should all be wondering whether this dark young man, with a mysterious handbag and his face muffled in accordance with the police reports, is indeed the Avenger; when, observing that Daisy has fair hair, we should be in exquisite anxiety for her fate, there is no escaping the fact that Daisy is June Tripp and the lodger Mr. Ivor Novello, to whom, and through whom, no harm, in the films, can come. It takes the sting out of excitement. It might, indeed, have been possible to forget that June was June and Mr. Novello Mr. Novello, if Mr. Hitchcock had concentrated on any other aspect of Daisy and the lodger than their insipid charm. But that on the screen would never have done; the spirit of a good tale must perish so that the camera be not denied its close-up kisses, its soft yearnings over breakfast trays, and its whisperings through bathroom doors. The Lodger becomes, in consequence, a story, not primarily of mystery, but of the landlady’s daughter (who, of course, being a mannequin, is becomingly dressed) and the young man upstairs. Mr. Malcolm Keen, the detective, is appropriately jealous, and Mr. Arthur Chesney and Miss Marie Ault come much nearer than anyone else to preserving the novel’s genuine atmosphere. One or two of Miss Ault’s scenes, when she hears her lodger go out at night and is terrified by her suspicions, are an indication of the manner which, if the book was to be justly interpreted, should have pervaded the film. They are quiet and unforced; they have that shrewd insistence upon the truth of ordinary life and character by which Mrs. Lowndes obtained a great part of her effect. But the film has nothing else that is their equivalent. It has frittered away terror in garish irrelevance.” The Times (January 18, 1927)

Apparently, “the book was better” is an extremely old complaint about film adaptations. Frankly, this argument is nearly always short-sighted (especially when it comes to Hitchcock’s filmography). Alfred Hitchcock usually took the basic concept from a novel or short story and constructed a new screen story based upon that concept. The Lodger is an extremely accomplished calling card from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs and to concentrate on the diversions from the original novel is to miss out on a rich and rewarding cinematic achievement.

Title

PART TWO: DOWNHILL

After The Lodger found success, Alfred Hitchcock would take a short break in order to marry Alma Reville on December 02, 1926, but it wasn’t long before the director found himself tackling another project.

“When the boy wonder returned from his honeymoon in January, it wasn’t hard to convince him that, rather than stagnating, it made sense to follow The Lodger with another picture capitalizing on the rage for Ivor Novello—who, along with Constance Collier (under their pen name, David L’Estrange)—had written the hit play from which Downhill would be adapted.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day. Alfred's older brother William is stood behind him.

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day (December 02, 1926). William John Hitchcock (Alfred’s older brother) can be seen standing behind him.

Unfortunately, the original play didn’t particularly interest Hitchcock and had less to do with the adaptation than was his usual practice. His particular contribution was the visualization of the scenes that were discussed in the script meetings with Angus MacPhail and Eliot Stannard (who remained relatively faithful to the original play). Luckily, the director tackled the direction of the film with the same creative fervency that distinguished his work on The Lodger. In fact, the director betrayed a genuine affection for a few of the ideas in the film during his interview with François Truffaut (even as he insisted that they werenaïve touches”).

“I experimented a bit. I showed a woman seducing a younger man, She is a lady of a certain age, but quite elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak. Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face. In that moment she looks dreadful. And through the open window, we show people passing by carrying a coffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Descending

Shots of Roddy descending became a motif in the film. The above three screen captures illustrate three examples as the protagonist descends the stairs, the escalator, and the elevator.

Another touch that Hitchcock insisted wouldn’t work today is a motif throughout the film where Novello’s character is shown descending. The most famous of these shots involves an escalator heading into the Underground. “That’s when the boy is thrown out of the house by his father,” the director remembered later. “To show the beginning of his downhill journey, I put him on an escalator going down.” Apparently, this scene was shot on location after midnight so as not to disrupt the commuters.

“For more than three hours a British film company took possession of the Maida Vale tube station [in] London recently for a special scene in the Piccadilly Picture, Ltd.’s production of Downhill, directed by that most promising of the new school of English producers, Mr. Alfred J. Hitchcock. Late travelers arriving at the station were puzzled by the huge sunlight arc lamps installed along the escalator and vestibule until the familiar face of Mr. Ivor Novello—in yellow grease paint and a camera on trestles—explained the situation. In the street were loudly purring generators on lorries… Scenes were made by Mr. Novello entering the station and booking a ticket, but the real interest lay in a wonderful ‘shot’ on the moving escalator—the first of its kind made in England. The bore of the escalator gave some surprising lighting effects, and Mr. Hitchcock is making the ‘slow’ descent of the character something half symbolic…” –The Canberra Times (Film Making in a Tube, May 06, 1927)

Interestingly, Hitchcock directed the scene in an eloquent formal suit complete with white tie and top hat because he had gone to the theatre earlier that night! By most accounts, principal photography was otherwise uneventful, but there was one particularly unfortunate disagreement that led to the temporary loss of one of his most important colleagues.

 “Hitch had a quarrel over a rather strange matter of principal with Ivor Montagu, who had helped him change the apparent disaster of The Lodger into a triumph and was now working on the scripting and editing of Downhill. Montagu, as befitted a young intellectual invader of the cinema, had all sorts of principles about what could and couldn’t, or should and shouldn’t be done in films. He objected particularly to shots which seemed to contain a built-in impossibility or to be cheating in some way. He himself admits to a measure of inconsistency… but a shot Hitch was determined to include in Downhill stuck in Montagu’s gullet. It was a scene in a taxi with the knees of the hero, his new love, and her old protector all touching in a rather equivocal manner, photographed from directly above. Montagu complained that the shot was an impossible viewpoint—not even a fly on the ceiling of the taxi could see things that way unless the taxi was ten feet tall. Hitch, characteristically, didn’t care: the shot showed what he wanted it to show, and that was that. Montagu was irritated at his inability to put over his point, and though he remained quite friendly with Hitch he departed after preliminary work on Easy Virtue, and he and Hitch did not work together again until seven years later when fate and Michael Balcon reunited them on the first Man Who Knew Too Much.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor’s mention of Montagu’s preliminary work on Easy Virtue brings up an interesting point. Alfred Hitchcock was actually working on that film throughout a good portion of Downhill’s production and the shooting of these two films overlapped a bit.

 “When the rest of Downhill was completed they still had a couple of necessary close-up shots left to do of [Ivor] Novello staggering through the east End of London on his return to England. Hitch had already begun work on his next film, Easy Virtue, and was on location on the Riviera. Novello came down very grandly, checked into the Hotel de Paris in Nice for one night, gave a lot of interviews there in his suite, and then, having got that out of the way, vanished to a very humble pension for the rest of his time on location. The shots were done on the flat roof of the pension, with a couple of men holding a painted backdrop of the London docks while Novello walked on the spot in front of it in the bright Mediterranean sunlight and the natives looked on incredulously, speculating as to what on earth these crazy Englishmen could be doing.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Once the film was finished and then released (in relatively rapid succession), it seems to have received some modest critical and commercial success with the overall critical opinion being extremely mixed. As a matter of fact, Iris Barry captured the overall critical response to the film in a single sentence when she wrote that Hitchcock “made a clever picture out of poor and indeed unsuitable and undramatic material.” Nearly every review reiterated these same sentiments. Alfred Hitchcock’s direction was always met with praise even as the scenario was torn to shreds as in this review published by the Yorkshire Post:

Downhill is the latest Ivor Novello picture, directed by Alfred Hitchcock… Mr. Novello has already had success in the stage play of the same name from which the film is taken, and I have no doubt that he will succeed in the film, for Mr. Hitchcock is remarkably skillful at combining clever photography with sound ‘entertainment value.’ But this story of an innocent school boy’s road to ruin is childish nonsense. We are asked to believe that the head master of a public school accepts without question the unsupported word of an obvious little minx from a tea shop, accusing his head prefect of having seduced her. Without inquiry the head master insinuates to Roddie that he must instantly pack his bags. Roddie arrives in London, where his father, not to be outdone by the head master, violently disowns him. The door slams mid we see Roddie starting down a tube escalator—symbolism—on the downward career that is to take him through chorus work to sudden wealth, to marriage with an expensive actress, poverty, cabaret dancing, and so at last happily home again.

Mr. Novello acts very competently throughout the picture, and Miss Annette Benson, as the minx who gets him expelled, displays the greatest promise. She will soon be well known. The direction and photography are consistently vivid, ingenious, and effective, but it is pretty plain that Mr. Hitchcock does not take this sort of stuff seriously. I am glad to see that he is now to direct a story of his own, called The Ring, for British International…” –Yorkshire Post (May 31, 1927)

A review published in The Guardian was just as critical and perhaps even more pointed than similar reviews that were being written at the time.

The Lodger was the best film made in England up to the end of last year. It had power, point, imagination, and an entirely new angle—new, that is to say, in an English studio of visual expression. Downhill carries out every promise of its predecessor without being at all a good film. It is interesting. It is shrewd. It is brilliant to the point of the camera. But the danger of a man possessing an individual and startling style is that he is apt not to be particular about the occasions on which he uses it. The material of The Lodger was slight and sensational, but the material of Downhill is down-right bad… I have never seen such an interesting production of rubbish nor [such] a clever film which deserved quite so little praise…

When Hitchcock sets to work on real film material… there will not be more than half a dozen producers in the world who will be able to beat him. There are none in England now.” -C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Critics rightly chastised the British Film Industry for their backwards attempts at improving their productions by focusing on the technical qualities rather than seeking out mature dramatic material and claimed that “no policy could be worse for the British film industry than an attempt to out-do Hollywood in mechanism to the neglect of human dramatic quality. To out-do Hollywood in technique is extremely difficult and not necessarily worth doing. To out-do Hollywood in dramatic value is immensely worth doing, and should be singularly easy.

A review published in The Times followed suit, but the most interesting aspect of their review is the mention of a short interlude that allowed Ivor Novello to perform a scene in person!

Downhill… shows more than anything else, the extraordinary way in which British film technique has advanced during the last few years. Many people will remember the play on which the film is based… This threadbare story has been taken over by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock… and by sheer technique, he has managed to breathe some life into it. He has not made it credible—that would be expecting too much—but he has at least made it seem far less ridiculous than one could possibly have expected.

The thesis is such an inverted one that it is difficult to know how he could have done better… That Mr. Hitchcock, with the improbable material to his hand, has succeeded so well is an achievement… Mr. Ivor Novello is excellent as himself, but he is never so much like a schoolboy as when he appears in person in an interpolated scene. This scene, on Monday night, seemed to interest the audience, but the advisability of mingling the two forms of entertainment seems very doubtful…” -The Times (October 12, 1927)

Not everyone disliked the film’s premise. A review in the Dundee Evening Telegraph betrays a genuine affection for Hitchcock’s direction and the scenario alike (even if they do describe it as being an “old theme”).

 “In the list of British films released last year which really can be classified as good the name of Alfred Hitchcock appears as producer opposite two…

…Hitchcock has taken a very old theme and dished it up anew, like cold mutton which is much more appetizing in rissoles form. He has given us the prodigal son in a new garb, and the hero shines more gloriously than the original, because his fall was due to his kindness of heart when he screened a fellow-student.

Thus the climax, when he returns broken and weary to his father’s house and all the things that can be summed up as ‘fatted calf,’ is just what is expected, but in various ways the picture has been cleverly thought out along fresh lines.

Several well-known British stars of the legitimate stage — Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, Norman McKinnell, Lilian Braithwaite, and Violet Fairbrother — are the featured players, the whole cast combining to give an impression of careful and clever direction.” -Dundee Evening Telegraph (January 10, 1928)

Modern scholars tend to agree with the majority of these old reviews and praise the director’s experimentation even as they condemn the plot—which is extremely dated and not particularly interesting. However, the film itself is a genuinely enjoyable experience and later scholarly assessments have been nothing if not grudgingly commendatory. An excellent example would be a mostly flattering paragraph published in Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.

“Technically, the picture is superior to just about anything that was made in England that year: there are perfectly matched dissolves to relate characters and themes; a fine dream sequence; and astonishingly stable follow shots with a hand-held camera along the docks of Marseilles. The sets, to be frank, are more convincing than some of the acting.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor was even more admiring in his 1978 biography about the director.

“It is not, one would gather, among the films Hitch feels particularly proud of nowadays… But seen today, Downhill comes over as one of his liveliest and most joyously inventive silent films—possibly a lack of any great sympathy with the material (‘a poor play,’ Hitch says) made it easier to regard the film as an exercise in technique… And at the time Downhill was made, absolutely no one else in the British cinema was working with this kind of cinematic imagination, telling a story with this mind-grabbing command of the medium’s possibilities—which, one senses, Hitch was incapable of not doing, even with a subject not at all to his taste.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor captures the thoughts and feelings of this reviewer quite admirably. Downhill isn’t one of his better films, but it does give the Hitchcock fan an opportunity to watch a raw cinematic talent as he is discovering his voice.

SS01

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Criterion is known for their brilliant tailor-made cover designs and Geoff Grandfield has designed a cover for The Lodger that mirrors the style of poster art used the silent era.

As is their habit, Criterion also includes an attractive fold-out pamphlet that features two interesting essays by Philip Kemp. The first of these is titled “The First True Hitchcock Movie” and focuses its attention on The Lodger. The second essay focuses on Downhill and is titled, “Playing for the Old Boys.” Both essays are worth reading as they should add to the viewer’s appreciation of both films despite the unfortunate fact that Kemp seems to be a blind devotee from the Spoto school of Hitchcock scholarship (if you can call it “scholarship”).

Menu

The disc’s menu utilizes a still image of the film’s title art, which actually works quite beautifully. This artwork is coupled with Neil Brand’s new score for the film, and the result is elegant in its simplicity.

SS02
Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

As is Criterion’s usual practice, they provide information about their restoration work in the included pamphlet:

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from the 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. A 35mm duplicate negative was scanned in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner at Deluxe 142 in London, where restoration also took place. The tint and tones of the original nitrate print have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation, along with Simon W. Hessel…” –Liner Notes

The restoration was originally released by Network in the United Kingdom, but Criterion’s release is its North American debut. This is a very different restoration than the one included on MGM’s 2009 DVD release of the film as is indicated by the shorter duration and the fact that this particular transfer showcases less (and very different) tinting. This makes one wonder about the reason (or reasons) behind these differences. Was the film tinted differently in different territories? Was the MGM release artificially tinted by the restoration team? So many questions come to mind.

Luckily, this transfer is the superior of the two and North American Hitchcock fans now have reason to celebrate! When one considers the film’s age, this transfer seems almost like a minor miracle. The image exhibits a surprising level of detail, and the grain pattern appears natural and well resolved throughout the duration of the film. Depth is strong for such an old feature, and contrast is about as good as anyone should expect considering the film’s origins. The restoration team has eliminated most signs of aging, although a few small and insignificant blemishes such as scratches, debris, damage marks, and lines do occasionally appear. Compression never becomes problematic either.

Our only small criticism concerns Criterion’s choice of putting both The Lodger and Downhill on the same disc. This particular release probably warrants a 2-disc treatment. Each film could have probably benefited from the maximized bitrate that this would have allowed—although The Lodger is reasonably well represented at 29.36 Mbps.

Criterion also includes information about their transfer for Downhill:

 “Downhill is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. 35mm nitrate print reels were scanned in 2K resolution on an Oxberry wetgate film scanner at Haghefilm Digital in Amsterdam. Digital restoration of the picture and intertitles took place at Deluxe142 in London. The tints and tones of the original nitrate prints have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by Simon W. Hessel” –Liner Notes

The result is an extremely solid image transfer (even at the relatively low bitrate of 15.09 Mbps) of the film. It seems every bit as strong as The Lodger and some aspects of the image might very well be marginally superior. Depth, for example, is extremely solid and detail often impresses the realistic viewer. Density can occasionally be less than perfect, but one suspects that this is due to the irreversible ravages of time. Like their restoration of The Lodger, the team has cleaned the image of distracting anomalies and only the occasional scratch and speck of dust remains here. This is an extremely satisfying image transfer.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Since original sound elements for silent films are usually nonexistent (as is the case with both The Lodger and Downhill), it has become the common practice to have new music written especially for these films. Whatever opinions one might have about this practice, it is admittedly the better of the two options available under the circumstances (the other being to simply release it without any sound track). This option at least allows the viewer a choice in the matter as one can simply mute their television sets if they don’t want outside sources to influence their viewing experience.

Criterion includes information about the included score for both films in their liner notes:

“Neil Brand’s score for The Lodger is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and the Orchestra of Saint Paul’s and conducted by Ben Palmer, with score preparation by Thomas Hewitt Jones. The performance was recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by producer Brand and engineer George Murphy…

…[His] piano score for Downhill is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by engineer George Murphy.” –Liner Notes

The score for The Lodger is presented in a 2.0 Linear PCM audio transfer and is the more robust of the two tracks (and the only one presented in an uncompressed format. Since it is an orchestral score, the lossless environment gives the music more room to breathe and sounds fantastic.

Downhill is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital and is therefore compressed, but it still sounds great. It is a simple piano score and requires less room to breathe than his orchestral score for The Lodger. This is another area that might have benefited from a two-disc Blu-ray release, but one shouldn’t be as critical about the standard definition soundtrack for this film as they might be if this were a talking picture with original sound design. After all, these scores are in all actuality third-party supplemental features that have nothing to do with the original film.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Downhill (1927)

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A 2K digital restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 follow-up to The Lodger is included on the disc as one of the film’s “special features,” and it adds an inordinate amount of value to the disk.

In addition to this bonus feature, Criterion includes over 2 hours and 51 minutes of additional video and audio based material that should fascinate fans of Alfred Hitchcock.

William Rothman: Hitchcock’s Visual Signatures – (32:54)

William Rothman discusses the visual signatures in The Lodger and how they can be found in many of the director’s later films. Scenes are dissected and analyzed in a scholarly manner, and even those who disagree with some of Rothman’s rhetoric will find something here to enhance their appreciation of the master’s work.

Interestingly, it seems that Rothman subscribes to the opinion that it is indeed Alfred Hitchcock who is seen in the angry mob at the film’s climax. This is certainly questionable and this fact calls some of his interpretations of this particular scene into question (which is unfortunate).

The Bunting House: Space and Structure in ‘The Lodger’(17:42)

Steven Jacobs (author of The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock) offers a rather comprehensive examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s use of architecture in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog and offers comparisons to some of the master’s later work. The German influence is discussed and a diagram of the bunting home is even offered as Jacobs discusses the dream-like inconsistencies some of the film’s geography. It probably won’t appeal to all viewers as Steven Jacobs speaks with a rather unusual and distracting accent that only exacerbates what might be seen as an overly dry and academic tone. However, those who enjoy theoretical analysis will no doubt find their appreciation of the film enhanced.

François Truffaut Interviews Alfred Hitchcock – (26:23)

Interview1

Those who have been collecting Hitchcock films on Blu-ray will know exactly what to expect from this excellent excerpt from François Truffaut’s legendary book length interview with the master of suspense. This portion of the interview predictably concentrates on The Lodger, and it is an extremely interesting discussion that betrays Hitchcock’s genuine affection for the film.

Criterion presents the interview over a sepia-tinted silent film styled title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.” This allows Criterion to utilize less disc space, but these interviews often play better when they are illustrated with photos and film footage. However, this is merely a small complaint. The important thing is that they have included what has become an essential part of any Hitchcock release.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock

Interview2

Criterion includes excerpts from two separate interviews and presents them over blue-tinted silent film styled title cards that say “Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchcock.” This is essentially the same style of presentation given to the Truffaut interview. Each interview is presented over a blue-tinted title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.”

It is surprising to discover that these two interviews are more comprehensive discussions about Alfred Hitchcock’s early life and career. In fact, there is very little overlap with Truffaut’s interview. Frankly, the information discussed in these interviews is richer and more revealing than the excerpt from Truffaut’s interview with the director (and the opposite is usually true).

1963 Interview(19:42)

1972 Interview(20:58)

Radio Adaptation of The Lodger (1940) – (30:48)

Alfred Hitchcock directs this radio adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger for the July 22, 1940 pilot episode of Suspense—which would become a CBS Radio series. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent was set for release and the radio program would serve as a promotion for the film (which explains the presence of Herbert Marshall as Mr. Sleuth and Edmund Gwenn as Robert Bunting). Interestingly, Gwen was cast in the same role given to his brother, Arthur Chesney, in Hitchcock’s original film version.

It is an interesting radio drama and has the added interest of being directed by Hitchcock himself (who rarely worked in radio). It adds an enormous amount of value to the disc.

Neil Brand: Scoring Hitchcock’s The Lodger(22:37)

The least interesting addition to the disc is this rather comprehensive interview with Neil Brand about the new score that he provided for The Lodger. Since this discussion is less about the film itself and more about Brand’s thought process while composing a new score for silent films, it is bound to disappoint those who are essentially looking for information or analysis about Hitchcock’s breakthrough film. However, anyone interested in a detailed account of the work that went into Brand’s score will no doubt be impressed.

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Final Words:

The Lodger is Alfred Hitchcock’s best and most important silent film and Criterion’s release contains a strong transfer, instructive supplemental material, and Downhill (the director’s follow-up feature). This is an incredible release that has been a long time coming! We hope that cinephiles can expect Criterion releases of some of the master’s other British thrillers in the near future.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Staff Writer (Another Fine British Film: A Murder Novel Screened, Daily Mail, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (New British Film: Ivor Novello in ‘The Lodger,’ Nottingham Evening Post, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (The Times, January 18, 1927)

Iris Barry (Downhill: A Clever British Film, Daily Mail, May 25, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World: New German and British Pictures, Yorkshire Post, May 31, 1927)

C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, June 14, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Times, October 12, 1927)

Staff Writer (Downhill at the Elite Theatre, Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, October 22, 1927)

Staff Writer (Around Dundee Cinemas, Dundee Evening Telegraph, January 10, 1928)

Staff Writer (Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 1928)

Staff Writer (Ivor Novello Superb, Australian River Record, August 17, 1928)

Staff Writer (Empire Theatre: Downhill, Queensland Morning Bulletin, October 23, 1928)

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

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 1977)

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

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Thomas Leitch (Hitchcock from Stage to Page, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

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

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Night Train to Munich – The Criterion Collection

Spine #523

blu-ray-cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 06, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 1:35:19

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Linear PCM Mono Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

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

title

“At a neighborhood theater where it was showing the other night, I saw six of our prominent directors and Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Walter Pidgeon and Claudette Colbert in the audience.  You know this is the picture of which Winston Churchill asked to have a special showing.  If you miss it, don’t say.  Marlene Dietrich, Joe Pasternak and Alfred Hitchcock also went to see it.  And Walter Winchell, one of America’s most widely syndicated columnists, described the film as ‘a dazzler.’  The ice it puts on your spine is brand new.” –Hedda Hopper (Los Angeles Times)

Brand new? Perhaps Hopper missed Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. In fact, Night Train to Munich is often described as an unofficial sequel to the Hitchcock film. Critics were certainly fond of pointing out the similarities:

“…It may suffer because of the inevitable comparisons that will be drawn to The Lady Vanishes, with which it has several factors in common… Made by the same British studio that turned out [The] Lady Vanishes, the film also has the same general subject matter, the same screenplay writers, Margaret Lockwood in the femme lead, and even makes similar use of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as two tourist Englishmen with a ludicrous interest in cricket…” –Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

charters-and-caldicott-in-the-lady-vanishes-cricket-test-match-cancelled-due-to-floods

Charters and Caldicott in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”

 The appearance of Charters and Caldicott (Radford and Wayne) provide an undeniable thread between the two films that is impossible to ignore. However, the duo seems to have learned something from their ordeal in The Lady Vanishes.

“…In The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott are the men who hold the key to the mystery of the title – and yet refuse to yield it and save the heroine. Iris Matilda Henderson, played by Margaret Lockwood, is a young socialite travelling back to London to be married to a drearily well-connected fiancé. A few hours into the journey, she suspects that her sanity has deserted her. She’s certain that she has just had tea in the dining car with Miss Froy, a friendly septuagenarian with oatmeal tweeds and a pleasantly crumpled face. But now the old lady has gone missing, and nobody on the train will admit to having seen her…

…Charters and Caldicott know that Miss Froy was on the train. They met her in the dining car, when Charters was using sugar cubes to plot out a contentious moment from a legendary England-Australia test match. (The names of the players suggest that it’s from the notorious ‘Bodyline’ tour of 1932-33.) Asked by Iris to recall the incident and prove that Miss Froy was more than a figment of her imagination, Charters and Caldicott play dumb, afraid that any admission will delay their progress to view some leather-on-willow action at Old Trafford. ‘We were deep in conversation,’ snaps Charters. ‘We were discussing cricket.’ Iris is baffled and disgusted. ‘I don’t see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people,’ she protests. Charters’ portcullis crashes down. ‘Oh, don’t you?’ he bristles. ‘Well, if that’s your attitude, obviously there’s nothing more to be said. Come, Caldicott.’ They disappear – and Iris is consigned to hours of mental agony…

… Spiritually, the pair’s journey is from self-absorbed triviality to uncompromising engagement with the enemy. At the beginning of the picture, they are models of insular indifference – by the last reel, their revolvers are blam-blam-blamming away as soldiers surround their stranded railway carriage, and Charters is nursing a bloody gunshot wound. It’s a version of the journey made by many British people at the end of the 1930s…” –Matthew Sweet (The Guardian, Mustard and Cress, December 29, 2007)

The characters were essential to the audiences understanding of the film as a parable about British complacency and appeasement, and their evolution in the Hitchcock film seems to be carried into Stephen Gilliat and Frank Launder’s Nazi-baiting script for Night Train to Munich. Charters and Caldicott are still self-absorbed (their initial reaction to England’s declaration of war is frustration over the inconvenience of having loaned golf clubs to someone in hostile territory), but they are now willing to stick their necks out for the greater good (even if it is an inconvenience).

charters-and-caldicott-in-night-train-to-munich

Charters and Caldicott in Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich”

The comic duo is introduced rather late in the film (during the titular train sequence), and one is led to believe that they are merely comic relief.  However, it soon becomes clear that they will play an important role in the story from this point forward. While in The Lady Vanishes, they decide to stay mum about having seen Miss Froy so as not to be inconvenienced, in Night Train to Munich they go out of their way to help Randall when he overhears that the Nazis plan to arrest him once the train reaches Munich. The film’s happy ending is a direct result of their efforts.

Reed’s thriller seems to have entered into relative obscurity in recent years, but it was quite successful upon its release in the month of August of 1940. British exhibitors were more than happy to program the film, and the public rewarded them by packing the theaters. However, when it was time to release the film in America in late 1940/early 1941, exhibitors were reluctant to gamble on the picture.

“In the absence of name stars, Night Train [as the film was re-titled] was passed up, first run by most of the leading circuits. So the management of the Globe Theater, on Broadway, booked the film, gave it good advanced exploitation—and the result is now a matter of record. Night Train is in its sixth week, and continuing. Exhibitors elsewhere are ‘discovering’ it…” –Variety (February 05, 1941)

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The film would eventually run for fifteen weeks in New York, and it was a resounding critical and box-office success. A rave review published in Variety encapsulates critical attitudes towards the film:

 “…Much of the film’s merit obviously stems from the compact, propulsive screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and the razor-edge direction of Carol Reed. [The] story by Gordon Wellesley opens in the tense days of August 1939 with a Nazi espionage agent in London recapturing two Czechs who have escaped from a concentration camp, an aged armor-plate inventor and his pretty daughter… [The] yarn is not only told without a single letdown, but it actually continues to pile up suspense to a nerve-clutching pitch. The headlong chase and escape at the end is a time-tested melodramatic device superbly handled.

Reed’s direction is worthy of the best thrillers of Edgar Wallace, for whom he was for many years stage manager… The English are traditionally masters of melodrama, and Night Train is a representative achievement. And, incidentally, it should prove better propaganda than a truckful [sic] of exhortative pictures.” –Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

Of course, no one overlooked the film’s obvious similarities to The Lady Vanishes (and no one should), but one wonders if this connection between the two films hasn’t resulted in a cooler contemporary opinion of Night Train to Munich. Today, the film is seen either as a mildly amusing footnote in Carol Reed’s career, or as a clumsy distant cousin to The Lady Vanishes. A recent review published in Slate magazine comes to mind:

“Unlike the Master of Suspense, who shot The Lady Vanishes two years before Night Train to Munich, Reed at this point in his career was too green to know how to direct his actors to make the whip-smart Nazi-baiting puns in Night Train to Munich work; many of his lesser actors plow through their lines when they should be giving them a proper setup. Compounded by the fact that he also didn’t quite know how to shoot action scenes (too much time wasted between shots), that indelicate touch prevents much of Gilliat and Launder’s bubbly patter from taking off in the same way it does in The Lady Vanishes.” –Simon Abrams (Slate, June 21, 2010)

This reviewer finds himself in agreement with Mr. Abrams, but it seems unfair to expect the film to stand up against some of Reed’s later efforts and what might be Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular British film. How could Night Train ever hope to compete with all of these wonderful classics? It is much better to simply view the film on its own terms without bringing anything else into the equation.

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The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Eric Skillman’s original artwork is brilliantly conceived and surpasses the film’s original one sheet artwork. A fold-out pamphlet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp (film critic) is also included.

The disc’s menus utilizes a slightly adjusted version of Skillman’s artwork with accompaniment from the film’s score.

menu

There does seem to be one unfortunate mistake made here, as the word “to” is omitted from the title.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Night Train to Munich is over 76 years old, but Criterion’s transfer makes the print look a few years younger. As is their usual practice, the film’s restoration was detailed in the pamphlet provided in the disc’s case:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 2K DataCine from a 35mm duplicate negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and the Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management” –Liner Notes

These efforts haven’t been in vain. The 1080p transfer is surprisingly pristine with excellent depth and features an incredible amount of detail. Contrast and brightness also seems to be well rendered without any troublesome enhancements to complain about. The print does have a few very minor scratches, but most of the prints imperfections have been masterfully removed without compromising the integrity of the picture in any way. All of this plays under a subtle layer of consistent grain that betrays the films source. If minor flaws exist, they occur in the source print. An obvious example would be scenes featuring stock newsreel footage, but this merely adds to the film’s texture.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s Linear PCM Mono track is surprising in its clarity and rarely sounds thin. Dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout the track as well. As is usual with Criterion discs, the sound was given a restoration as well.

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 3mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX 4.” -Liner Notes

The result is an authentic audio track that isn’t marred by any distracting anomalies.

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Special Features:

2 of 5 MacGuffins

Conversation with Peter Evans and Bruce Babington – (29:22)

Criterion seems to have cursed itself with an unequalled reputation for quality transfers and a generous helping of supplemental features that are both informative and engaging. Cinephiles spend weeks going through the hours of fascinating features that are included on Criterion releases. Unfortunately, it is sometimes impossible to live up to these unbelievably high standards.

 There are occasions when a film is too old and obscure to find much in the way of supplemental material. Night Train to Munich is such a title. One might hope for a documentary about Carol Reed’s career and/or a program about the collaboration between Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, but it seems that these things were not available to them.

That Criterion has managed to produce anything at all for this film is evidence of their devotion to the films that they release and to the fans that consume them, and this dialogue between Evans (author of Carol Reed) and Babington (author of Launder and Gilliat) was well worth their trouble. It is worth noting that Criterion hosted this discussion on an actual train. The scholarly conversation covers topics such as Carol Reed’s direction of the film (and is subsequent career), the contributions of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and even the sociopolitical climate in which the film was produced. It might not be the comprehensive glimpse into the film that one might hope for, but it should enhance one’s appreciation for the film.

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Final Words:

While this early Carol Reed effort is mostly remembered for its connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, it should be seen and enjoyed on its own terms. The sharp wit and furious pace keeps the audience involved, and there are certainly worse ways to spend a rainy evening. Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film carries a surprisingly clean image and sound transfer that represent a major upgrade from their earlier DVD release.

Review by: Devon Powell

one-sheet

Source Material:

Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

Hedda Hopper (Los Angeles Times)

Uncredited Staff (Variety, February 05, 1941)

Matthew Sweet (Mustard and Cress, The Guardian, December 29, 2007)

Simon Abrams (Night Train to Munich, Slate, June 21, 2010)

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words – The Criterion Collection

Spine #828

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

 Release Date: August 16, 2016

 Region: Region A

Length: 1:54:16

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 Multi-Language (Swedish, English, Italian, and French) DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Ratio: 1.78:1

Bitrate: 32.33 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available in a DVD edition

Title

“Some years ago I had a chance meeting with Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, and she presented me with a most direct proposition: ‘Shall we make a film about Mama?’ I saw this as a most challenging project, and when I later got access to her rich posthumous work – diaries, letters, photographs, amateur movies – my appreciation of Ingrid Bergman as a strong and most determined artist grew even bigger. With Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (Jag är Ingrid) I’ve tried to make a rich and multi-colored portrait of this extraordinary human being, based to a large extent on her own offerings, her opinions as expressed in her private diaries and self-made amateur movies, her art as documented in films over more than four decades. And I have called in people close to her – her children – to witness about her life and her great offerings to all of us who have only gotten to know her from the silver screen.” -Stig Björkman (Cannes Press Book)

Scholars are apt to name Grace Kelly as Alfred Hitchcock’s most important leading lady, but those who have an acute awareness of the director’s entire career should find this rather short-sighted. It should be more than obvious that Ingrid Bergman was every bit as important to Hitchcock’s work. One imagines that scholarship would be quite different if Bergman happened to be a blonde, but to pontificate about this would only lead us further from our enchanting subject.

It is nearly impossible to write about Ingrid Bergman without mentioning the scandalous affair that left her Hollywood career in shambles for over half a decade. Manohla Dargis recently summarized this dramatic ordeal in a succinct paragraph:

“For those who know Bergman only as a Hitchcock brunette or as the dewy beauty who should have walked off with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, it may be hard to grasp that starting in the late 1940s, she became an international scandal by running off with Rossellini, ostensibly to make Stromboli. They made the film and, while she was married to her first husband, Petter Lindstrom, a child. It was an affair that seemed to have started with a letter or maybe a shared dream. ‘I was bored. I felt as if it was the end of growing,’ she is quoted as saying in an early biography — bored, too, it seemed, with a Hollywood she once sought. ‘I was searching for something, I knew not what.’” – Manohla Dargis (New York Times, November 12, 2015)

How this information could “be hard to grasp” after everything that has been written about it is beyond this reviewer’s comprehension, but it certainly shocked people at the time. As a matter of fact, Charles H. Percy even saw fit to denounce Bergman on the floor of the United States Senate, calling her “a powerful influence for evil.” It took time for Bergman to be welcomed back into American hearts, but this curse seems to have ended with the release of Anastasia in 1956.

The Hitchcock-Bergman Trilogy

The Hitchcock/Bergman Trilogy: ‘Spellbound’ (1945), ‘Notorious’ (1946), & ‘Under Capricorn’ (1949)

Of course, none of this really mattered in the grand scheme of Ingrid Bergman’s life (or to those closest to her). To those who knew her, she wasn’t the Hollywood star that portrayed symbols of virtue (with a few noteworthy exceptions – including Hitchcock’s Notorious and Under Capricorn). She was simply an adoring mother who would be greatly missed by her children when they couldn’t be near her. She was a kind and compassionate friend. She was an ambitious and incredibly talented actress. She was a human being who couldn’t fit into the roles forced upon her by the public. The actress would later comment on her public image, saying “I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, all in one lifetime.”

Neither the saint nor the whore is represented here. Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words instead prefers to reveal the human being that those closest to her remember, and it does this with remarkable intimacy. Through never-before-seen private footage, notes, letters, diaries and interviews with her children, this documentary presents a personal portrait and captivating look behind the scenes of the remarkable life of a young Swedish girl who became one of the most celebrated actresses of American and World cinema. Alicia Vikander gives Ingrid Bergman’s private letters and diary entries a voice while the viewer is shown vintage home movie footage of and shot by Bergman herself. Meanwhile, her family and friends speak candidly about their relationship with this remarkable woman. The overall result is a documentary that viewers should find dramatically compelling, because it is quite clear that Bergman’s inner life was a volcano of mixed feelings and emotions.

While she adored her daughter (Pia Lindström) and admired her husband (Dr. Petter Lindström), she didn’t feel fulfilled unless she was working:

“Dear Ruth,

I’m very busy as usual. A home, a husband, children—it should be enough for any woman. I thought I’d get a new role soon after Jekyll and Hyde. But, I’ve had nothing in four months. It’s two months too long. I think about every day that’s wasted. Only half of me is alive. The other half is packed away in a suitcase suffocating. What should I do?” -Ingrid Bergman (Letter read in “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

This seems like a very common dilemma faced by women of the era. How many young girls listened while their brothers were asked what they wanted to be when they are grew up only to be asked who they wanted to marry? In some ways, Ingrid Bergman was a living example of the feminist predicament during that period in history.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock fans will be happy to note that the director makes a few “cameo” appearances in the film; first in some very interesting Pathé newsreel footage of Bergman with her director, and again in some of Bergman’s very rare home movie footage. She discusses working with Hitchcock fondly in a letter to her one of her friends in Sweden:

“Mollie, my friend. We’re hard at work on Hitchcock’s Notorious. He’s so talented. Every day with him is pure happiness. He brings out the best in me, things I never imagined I possessed. He mixes serious with humor, comedy with drama. I thought Cary Grant would be conceited and stuck-up, but he’s one of the nicest co-stars I’ve ever worked with…” –Ingrid Bergman (Letter read in “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

Of course, this is mere icing on a rich and very satisfying slice of cake… or should it be life? It doesn’t really matter. Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words proves that a slice of life can be just as rewarding as a slice of cake.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. F. Ron Miller’s artwork is well conceived and surpasses the film’s American one sheet artwork (which his design is based upon). An added bonus is the wonderful fold out pamphlet featuring an essay by Jeanine Basinger.

Menu

The disc’s menus utilize similar artwork to the cover, but the photo of Ingrid Bergman and her camera is different. This image is accompanied by music from the film’s score.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s transfer of the film is impressive and seems to be limited only by the source various materials in the feature. As is usual for Criterion, they have explained the technical specifications in the leaflet provided in the disc’s case:

“The film’s new footage was shot in Super 35mm HD with a Canon C300 digital camera and on Super 8mm film. The majority of the archival 8mm and 16mm film footage was obtained from the Wesleyan Cinema Archives in Middletown, Connecticut. This material was sent to Prasad Corporation in Burbank, California, and scanned in 4K resolution. Other materials, archived at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, were scanned in 2K resolution. Ingrid Bergman’s 8mm home movies were obtained from her daughter Pia Lindström, having previously been transferred from film to video. The location of the original reels for this material is unknown. The production was completed in a fully digital workflow.” –Liner Notes

Obviously, nearly all aspects of the image fluctuates in quality and it is quite difficult to give a concise overall report about the quality of the transfer. However, it does seem like the transfer showcases every element in the best possible light. One must at least say that the digitally shot interview footage is always crisp and clear with plenty of fine detail. This can also be said of many of the still images that are featured throughout the film. The quality of the 16mm and 8mm footage fluctuates from source to source, but the quality seems to accurately represent its source. (Frankly, the varying source materials are part of the film’s charm.)

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s sound transfer seems to be a solid representation of the film’s source audio elements. The track no doubt benefited from the film’s digital workflow.

“This film features a fully digital soundtrack. The 5.1 surround audio for this release was mastered from the original audio master files using ProTools HD.” –Liner Notes

The result isn’t a flashy audio mix (there are relatively few separations), but the film’s important audio consists mostly of dialogue and music. It certainly suits the film’s needs; as the dialogue is always quite clear, and the music seems to have ample breathing room. There is quite a lot of archival audio included in the mix, and some of these tracks can be more difficult to understand than the majority of the program. However, these brief instances seem be an accurate reflection of the source clips.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has included over an hour of related supplemental material for Bergman fans, and most of them are well worth the time that it takes to watch them.

Two Deleted Scenes:

“How I Would Raise My Daughter” – (02:54)

Ingrid Bergman’s Three Daughters (Pia Lindström, Isabella Rossellini, and Ingrid Rossellini) read an essay written by Ingrid Bergman at age seventeen. The essay was titled “How I Would Raise My Daughter.” It is interesting to hear her thoughts on motherhood at that age. However, one understands why it wasn’t included in the final film.

Interview with Rosario Tronnolone (Bergman Scholar) – (08:45)

Rosario’s interview is interesting, but it would have been out of pace in the finished film. He discusses his favorite photographs of Bergman and the photographers that took them, shows us the location of her wedding to Rossellini, and talks generally about her character.

Extended Scenes:

Shubert Theatre – (14:01)

This is a longer version of the interview with Sigourney Weaver, Isabela Rossellini, and Liv Ullmann at the Shubert Theater. They seem to stray from the topic and begin discussing their own careers. It is interesting to hear them talk shop. However, most of this had no place in the actual film, and one is grateful that it was cut.

Rossellini Siblings – (05:48)

The three Rossellini siblings discuss their mother here at Isabella Rossellini’s home in New York. While much of this was used in the actual film, it is interesting to see the conversation continue.

8 mm Home Movies – (07:07)

Pia Lindström supplied Stig Björkman with 8mm footage that was shot by Ingrid Bergman in the 1930s and 1940s. However, some of the footage didn’t make it into the film. Luckily, what he didn’t use is included here (along with the footage that he did use). Hitchcock enthusiasts will find the footage especially fascinating, because there is quite a bit of rare footage of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock!

Interview with Stig Björkman – (18:35)

Stig Björkman discusses the genesis of the project, the research and gathering of various footage and other resources, the shape of the film (and various other ideas that were considered, and more. The interview is enhanced by photographs and footage from the documentary itself. It is surprisingly comprehensive, but all subjects discussed are merely touched upon in a very general way.

Clip from Landskamp (1932) – (00:34)

Ingrid Bergman worked as an extra in Landskamp, which was her first film appearance. She is one of a number of girls waiting in a line. She is quite young and a bit unrecognizable. The inclusion of this particular clip should make Bergman fans very happy, but it should be pointed out that most (if not all) of this same clip is included and discussed during the actual documentary.

Outtakes from På solsidan (1936) – (04:02)

These outtakes from På solsidan give viewers an interesting look at one of Bergman’s early Swedish performances in very raw form. She played the part of Eva Berghand opposite of Lars Hanson (as Herold Ribe) in her sixth film role.

Music Video for Eva Dahlgren’s “Filmen Om Oss” – (04:42)

The English version of this song (The Movie about Us) was used at the end of the film, and Eva Dahlgren’s video for the song uses a home movie aesthetic to mirror that of the documentary. It is an unusual supplement for a Criterion release, but it is interesting to hear the Swedish version of the song. It actually brings up an interesting question: If a Swedish version of the song exists, why would Björkman use the English version? A large percent of the documentary is in Swedish. It seems a bit odd that the song wouldn’t be in this same language. (This shouldn’t be read as a complaint.)

Theatrical Trailer – (01:35)

The theatrical trailer is quite effective. It certainly made this reviewer want to see this important, and it is nice to have it included here.

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Final Words:

This intimate glimpse into the life of one of cinema’s most beloved actresses has been given a wonderful release by Criterion. Those who know Bergman’s story may not find many surprises here, but they will experience the information from a fresh and very personal perspective.

Swedish One Sheet

The Original Theatrical One Sheet

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Classic Hitchcock – The Criterion Collection

Boxed Set

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: December 15, 2015

Region: Region A

Notes: Our source at Criterion tells us that this Boxed Set will likely only be available for a very limited time. However, these titles are also available individually on both Blu-ray and DVD.

The Criterion Collection has packaged their currently available Hitchcock titles into a boxed-set called Classic Hitchcock. The set contains the following Criterion titles with the same packaging, supplements, and transfers as their respective individual releases:

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934):

Blu-ray Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much – The Criterion Collection

The 39 Steps (1935):

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

The Lady Vanishes (1938):

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

Foreign Correspondent (1940):

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

(Please click the links to read complete reviews of each of these titles.)

Final Words:

Those who have not already purchased any of these Criterion titles will find that this boxed set saves them quite a bit of money.

Review by: Devon Powell

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

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

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

Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeline Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

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

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

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

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

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Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

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

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

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

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

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

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

Spine # 374 

BD Box Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA) 

Release Date: March 29, 2016 

Region: Region A

Length: 1:29:27

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.96 Mbps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

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

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

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 Stars

*All Italian Language Documentaries include English Subtitles*

Working with De Sica(22:43)

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

Cesare Zavattini – (55:42)

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

Life as It Is – (39:57)

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

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

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Final Words:

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

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Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s Bicycle Thieves page:

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

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

Spine # 5

cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 08/Apr/ 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:40:02

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: Uncompressed French Mono

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 2.34:1

Bitrate: 38.83 Mbps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Brian Stonehill

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

Audio Commentary by Robert Lachenay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (3:47)

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

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Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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Additional Note:

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

The Criterion Collection’s The 400 Blows  page:

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

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

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

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Box Set Art 5

Box Set Art 1

Box Set Art 2

Box Set Art 4

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

Menu 1

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

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

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

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

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

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

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

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

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

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

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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

Spine # 3

cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 06/Dec/2011

Region: Region A

Length: 01:20:59

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

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 35Mbps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation: 

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Gallery

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

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Final Words:

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

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Reviewed by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The Lady Vanishes  page:

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