Blu-ray Review: Alfred Hitchcock – The Ultimate Collection

 

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: October 17, 2017

Region: Region A

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

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

Saboteur

Shadow of a Doubt

Rope

Rear Window

The Trouble with Harry

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Psycho

The Birds

Marnie

Torn Curtain

Topaz

Frenzy

Family Plot

What really sets this release apart from the previous releases is that it includes two new standard definition DVDs that focus on his television work.

The Best of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’

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

Revenge (Season 1, Episode 1)

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

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

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

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

Lamb to the Slaughter (Season 3, Episode 28)

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

Poison (Season 4, Episode 1)

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

Arthur (Season 5, Episode 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’

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

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

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

Three Wives Too Many (Season 2, Episode 12)

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

Death Scene (Season 3, Episode 20)

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

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

Promotional photograph for 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' from 1962, taken by Gabor 'Gabi' Rona

This is a promotional photograph for ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ that was taken in 1962 by Gabor ‘Gabi’ Rona.

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

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

The Presentation:

4 of 5 Stars

The packaging is very similar to Universal’s Masterpiece Collection, but the artwork is somewhat different. It is of course a matter of taste as to which is better, but most should agree that the design is just as pleasing as the one utilized for that earlier release. From an aesthetic standpoint, this collection is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, it is the sort of design that seems special on the surface but actually provides the consumer with less value than if each film had been provided with a sturdy individual Blu-ray case.

It is time for studios to do away with these book-style sets that house the discs in folder-like sleeves. This leaves the discs vulnerable to scratching and other types of damage, and disc protection should always be the first priority when designing these collections. What’s more, it doesn’t allow the collector to arrange their collections in the manner that they might wish. (This reviewer prefers chronological arrangement).

The Ultimate Collection

This particular book-style release devotes two pages to each of the films included therein. The first of the two pages features the film’s one sheet while the second includes a quote, a brief description of the film, and a list of bonus features. A promotional still from the film is also utilized. Since this is the same information that one might find on the slip sleeve of any regular release, it only gives one the appearance of additional value when in actuality it is probably much cheaper than including individual cases for each title.

A small softbound book entitled “The Master of Suspense” is also included. There are around 58-60 pages worth of material here (depending on how one chooses to count them), and it does add a bit of value to the package. It includes some extremely general biographical information about Hitchcock and his career, a few paragraphs about his leading men, a page that focuses on “The Hitchcock Blondes,” two pages that focus on Edith Head (including a handful of costume sketches), two pages that showcase Saul Bass (with a series of screenshots from the title sequences for Vertigo and Psycho), a page about Bernard Herrmann, a half page about “The MacGuffin,” and another half page about the director’s cameo appearances. After these subjects, the book focuses on each of the films included in this set. Film trivia, artwork, storyboards, photographs, letters, and memorandum have been included throughout these pages in Universal’s effort to create an attractive keepsake. There isn’t much in the way of information here (and some of it borders on being erroneous), but it does make for a fun reading experience.

Final Words:

The back sleeve of this release screams “The Best of Alfred Hitchcock,” and one must admit that the set does include a number of the master’s best films. However, it is ridiculous to claim that the set represents Hitchcock’s best work because some of his best films aren’t included here while some of his worst films are present. For example, few would rank Topaz above Notorious or Strangers on a Train. This set is simply a complete collection of the films that Universal actually owns (with North by Northwest included as a healthy bonus due to a licensing trade).

It is certainly an impressive collection of films and those that don’t mind the folder-book packaging might wish to grab this set while supplies last—that is if they do not already own these films individually or as part of The Masterpiece Collection. The two new DVDs might not be worth an upgrade (especially since they weren’t given a new 1080P transfer for this release).

Review by: Devon Powell

Advertisements

Blu-ray Review: The Trouble with Harry

cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 02/Jul/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 99 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (24bit, 48kHz)

Alternate Audio: 2.0 French Mono DTS (24bit, 48 kHz)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: This title has had at least two DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

 ss0

“I didn’t change [the novel] very much. To my taste, the humor is quite rich. One of the best lines is when old Edmund Gwenn is dragging the body along for the first time and a woman comes up to him on the hill and says, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?” To me that’s terribly funny; that’s the spirit of the whole story. I’ve always been interested in establishing a contrast, in going against the traditional and in breaking away from clichés. With Harry, I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it into the sunshine. It’s if I set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water. These contrasts establish a counterpoint; they elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

The Trouble With Harry was a very troubled production. Hitchcock decided to shoot the film on location, but the weather never cooperated and the acoustics in the gymnasium (where the sets were built) created unusable sound. The problems seemed to elevate when an overhead bracket supporting the enormous VistaVision camera broke and it came crashing down, nearly crushing the director. The camera merely swiped Hitchcock’s shoulder, but one of the crew members was injured in the incident. When the  production fell behind schedule, Hitchcock was forced to move his production back to the more predictable confines of the Hollywood studio.

However, the production wasn’t completely cursed. The film gods were smiling on Hitchcock when it came time to cast the picture. The casting of Shirley MacLaine seems to have been divine providence:

“…I would learn to dance and eventually become a chorus girl and understudy to Carol Haney in the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game…

Unknown to me, there were two men in the audience of that Pajama Game performance that would change my life forever; Hal Wallis (the Hollywood producer who discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), and Doc Ericson (a representative for the legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock).

Here I was – a nineteen year old chorus girl, with no acting experience, [and] Hitchcock put me in a room with Mildred Natwick, Edmund Gwenn and John Forsythe. These were the premiere actors on Broadway and now were my co-stars. We were together during the first reading and having no previous experience, I just read it instinctively. When we were finished, Hitch, in his quirky sense of humor, said, ‘You have the guts of a bank robber.’ Because of Hitch’s reputation, I knew I had the job!

I was scared, but curious, and yearned for the learning experience as I joined the film crew in Vermont. I have fond memories of all the cast. In the beginning John Forsythe tolerated me as an amateur, but then realized I had an instinct for acting and started to appreciate this gift. I learned so much from all of them.

Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, The Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont, but he really appreciated the food. There was always plenty on the set and I ate all of it because it was free. In my days as a chorus girl I hadn’t had much to eat. I existed on graham crackers and peanut butter. When I began the picture I was svelte and lithe, but by the time I buried Harry for the last time, the head of the studio called me… I think the word was blimp.

Hitch had a mind-tease code that kept you alert. One morning he came waddling toward me, eyes twinkling, roly-poly stomach well out in the lead.

‘Pleasant period following death.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Genuine chopper, old girl, genuine chopper.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘And after your first line – dog’s feet.’

Finally, Hitch explained his version of cockney rhyming slang:

Good mourning. (Pleasant period following death)

Real-Axe. (Genuine chopper)

After you start your first line, paws. (Dog’s feet)

What a mind. I have the greatest appreciation for this mystery-meister who gave me the freedom of artistic expression, to seek and learn from some of the best. Hitch, wherever you are, I love you and will see you again…”Shirley MacLaine

A star was born. MacLaine went on to be one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading ladies, but never appeared in another Hitchcock film. However, the production also marked the beginning of the director’s working relationship with Bernard Herrmann and the composer would go on to score all of the director’s films through Marnie. Music scholar, Robert Barnett, called the composer’s score a milestone in his career:

“It was his first Hitchcock outing. The music itself (or elements of it) may be familiar under another title. When Herrmann was in the studio for Phase Four Decca in 1968 he fashioned a concert piece from it and called it ‘A Portrait of Hitch.’ He did this because he felt that this music reflected Hitch’s dry and diabolic sense of humor…

…The orchestral specification is modest: double wind, four horns, harp and strings. As was his usual custom he uses the orchestra in smaller groupings selecting a color from his palette to match mood and image.

The music he wrote for the film exposes veins and arteries of winning freshness. Not one of the forty tracks is poor or misjudged. Herrmann gives every sign of having been totally immersed in lyricism and of enjoying every moment of it…” -The Bernard Herrmann Society

Unfortunately, the film wasn’t very successful at the box office. Alfred Hitchcock speculated that the film was improperly marketed to the public.

“I think The Trouble with Harry needed special handling. It wouldn’t have failed commercially if the people in the distribution organization had known what to do with the picture; but it got into the assembly line and that was that.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

This might very well be the case. In an article about Jerry Pickman (a publicist at Paramount), Pickman admits that he didn’t think that the studio would be able to market the film.

“Hitchcock wanted to make a picture called The Trouble with Harry. He had a little girl named Shirley MacLaine– ‘I never heard of her,’ said the studio head–and an old man, Edmund Gwenn, and it was going to cost $800,000. We all shook our heads, the answer was no. Well, every morning I would have the studio send me a capsule of all the announcements they made to the press. They would give me a summary, and the next morning I see they announced The Trouble with Harry. I was a little annoyed but I wasn’t going to go down and challenge the president of the company…

… Balaban walked in, had his lunch, and as he walked around he said, ‘Is something bothering you? You didn’t say hello to me.’ I said, ‘I’m annoyed, Barney. Why did we have the meeting yesterday? We decided not to make the picture and the studio wired this morning saying we’re going ahead with it. If you changed it, why didn’t you tell us?’ He said, ‘I was too embarrassed. After we all said no, the studio head called back and said, ‘Barney, I can’t tell Hitchcock no, because he gave us To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. I haven’t got the courage to say no to him, so I told him we were going to make the picture.’ And that’s how the picture was made. That was how the company was run.” -Jerry Pickman

It has been written that The Trouble with Harry nearly ruined Hitchcock’s career, but this is not the case at all. It is more accurate to say that the film was simply ignored. Critical reception wasn’t particularly complimentary, but it certainly wasn’t hostile. Bosley Crowther’s review was typical of the critical reception towards the film:

“…It is not a particularly witty or clever script that John Michael Hayes has put together from a novel by Jack Trevor Story, nor does Mr. Hitchcock’s direction make it spin. The pace is leisurely, almost sluggish, and the humor frequently is strained. The whimsy inclines to be pretentious, such as Miss Natwick’s cheery reply to Mr. Gwenn’s expressed hope that her father’s death was peaceful: “He was caught in a threshing machine.” Or again, when the two are out exhuming the freshly buried corpse, she says, ‘After we’ve dug him up, we’ll go back to my place and I’ll make you some hot chocolate.’” – The New York Times (October 18, 1955)

Today, this seems like an unfair analysis. A recent review published in The Guardian labeled the film a “masterpiece.” I disagree with this statement, but the film is certainly on par with other comedies of the period and better than most of them. It stands out as a decidedly unusual film in the director’s canon and has earned the admiration that it now receives from cinemaphiles.

ss2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

collection page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

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

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

ss3

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080P transfer of The Trouble with Harry is really surprisingly beautiful. Robert Burks’ autumn landscapes are vivid and accurate and viewers will see detail and clarity never before observed on any previous home video format. Contrast is perfectly rendered with deep black levels and the source print is nearly immaculate. While grain is certainly apparent, this is inherent in the film’s celluloid source and contributes to a more cinematic experience. It is actually rather difficult to find something to complain about.

ss4

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

I suppose that some might complain about the lack of a 5.1 mix, but the 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio is accurate and a vast improvement over those included on previous home video releases. There is no perceptible hiss present and the track seems to be free from other annoying signs of age as well. Dialogue is consistent and always intelligible and Bernard Herrmann’s music has more room to breath due to the lossless nature of this track. For one to expect anything better than this seems rather unreasonable.

ss7

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

All of the supplementary materials from the DVD releases have been ported over to this Blu-ray disc.

The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over – (SD) – (32 minutes)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary on the making of The Trouble With Harry is a delightful look into the making of this often overlooked film. John Forsythe, John Michael Hayes, Herbert Coleman, Patricia Hitchcock, and Steven Smith (Bernard Herrmann’s Biographer) discuss the production.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This photo gallery plays by itself as a sort of slide show, but there is the option of skipping to the next photo.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

The trouble with the “Theatrical Trailer” on this disc is that it is not an actual Trailer. It is merely a promo for the VHS release of the film. This is a shame. It would have been interesting to see how Paramount chose to market this unique film.

ss5

Final Words:

The Trouble with Harry has been given an amazing Blu-ray release. I would recommend adding it to your collection.

 Review by: Devon Powell