Blu-ray Review: Lifeboat

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: March 21, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:36:58

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.39:1

Bitrate: 24.91 Mbps

Notes: A DVD edition of this title was previously released by 20th Century Fox in North America, but this marks the film’s Blu-ray debut in this region.

Title

“…It was a challenge, but it was also because I wanted to prove a theory I had then. Analyzing the psychological pictures that were being turned out, it seemed to me that, visually, eighty percent of the footage was shot in close-ups or semi-close shots. Most likely it wasn’t a conscious thing with most of the di­rectors, but rather an instinctive need to come closer to the action. In a sense, this treatment was an anticipation of what was to become the television technique.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While there is certainly an abundance of close-ups and medium shots in Lifeboat, Hitchcock still manages to pull off a diverse and creative mise-en-scène throughout its duration. In fact, Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most creatively successful cinematic experiments. Unfortunately, the film is usually treated with a certain amount of apathy by scholars and critics.

It is too easy to simply write the film off as an anomaly in the director’s career and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s droll reaction to Tallulah Bankhead’s unfortunate habit of not wearing any underwear: “I’m not sure if this is a matter for wardrobe or hairdressing” or his reaction to Mary Anderson when she asked which was her better side: “You’re sitting on it, my dear.” In fact, most writings on the film focus on such anecdotes (and no two versions of either of these stories are consistent). Very little attention is paid to the film itself or to the rich viewing experience that it provides to willing audiences.

Perhaps this is because the film isn’t usually evaluated in the same manner as most Hitchcock pictures. There are those who see this as an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novella, and this particular approach is both misguided and misleading. John Steinbeck wasn’t even responsible for the film’s premise—despite what the author’s widow has claimed in the past. Hitchcock himself originated the idea of making a movie about a cross-section of American society adrift on a Lifeboat and had originally approached Ernest Hemingway to write a treatment. John Steinbeck was only contacted after Hemingway turned the project down. He agreed to write a treatment in novella form if he would be allowed to publish the novella after the film’s release. The treatment was never completed nor was it ever published—though a ghostwriter did rework the treatment for magazine publication in order to help promote the film’s release.

“I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give a dramatic form to each of the se­quences.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

These facts should alter one’s reading of the film as an adaptation because it was actually an original screenplay that was developed in much the same manner that other original scripts were developed. However, this none of these facts are intended to discount Steinbeck’s contribution to the project. The resulting film is one of the Hitchcock’s most political and it makes a number of interesting social observations and statements.

20th Century Fox understood this and saw it as an important “prestige” film, and Darryl F. Zanuck, therefore, wanted to make contributions to the picture. This resulted in memorandum that pressured the director to make cuts and to add music. In the end, only minor cuts were made and music was only added to the beginning and ending of the film. It is believed that Zanuck’s desire for Hitchcock to direct another movie for the studio resulted in his giving the director more creative freedom than he would have usually allowed. In any case, Zanuck was pleased with the final result.

Hitchcock Cameo - Publicity Photo

This is a publicity still featuring Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat.

Hitchcock Cameo

This is a screenshot of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat. “That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up. Usually, I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean. I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink. I couldn’t play one of the nine survivors since each had to be played by a competent performer. Finally, I hit on a good idea. At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds. So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. These photographs were used in a news¬ paper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them—and me—when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat. The role was a great hit. I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how they could get Reduco.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

In fact, everyone involved expected the film to be an enormous success and reviews were initially positive, but Bosley Crowther’s second review altered the film’s critical reception from that point forward. Dorothy Thompson—the template for Bankhead’s characterization of Constance Porter—famously gave the film ten days to get out of town.

“One of the things that drew the fire of the American critics is that I had shown a German as being superior to the other char­acters. But at that time, 1940-41, the French had been defeated, and the allies were not doing too well. Moreover, the German, who at first claimed to be a simple sailor, was actually a submarine commander; therefore there was every reason for his being better qualified than the others to take over the command of the life­ boat. But the critics apparently felt that a nasty Nazi couldn’t be a good sailor. Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit else­where, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics often complained that Hitchcock never made political or socially relevant films—but when he made this kind of film, they usually lashed out at the director. The reason for this is simple. Most so-called “relevant” films were in all actuality propaganda, and propaganda is never completely honest. Audiences must be pandered to in order for propaganda to be successful: “Americans are strong, righteous, and courageous. What’s more, we have right on our side…” Hitchcock doesn’t pander. He holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and darker impulses—and he does this in Lifeboat. His pictures are more relevant than most of the films that critics praised. Lifeboat was a warning about the complacent self-interest and petty philosophical differences that divide us or weaken our resolve, and this is why the film is still relevant.

“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the com­mon enemy, whose strength was precisely de­rived from a spirit of unity and of determination.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics and journalists weren’t the only ones complaining. John Steinbeck disliked the film and tried in vain to have his name removed from both film and its publicity.

“New York January 10, 1944 Dear Sirs, I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary, there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro, there was a Negro of dignity, purpose, and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.” -John Steinbeck (Letter to 20th Century Fox, January 10, 1944)

It is more than a little obvious that the author’s dissatisfaction with the film was entirely due to the many changes made to his unfinished treatment, and it should be said that his comments about Canada Lee’s portrayal of Joe Spencer are enormously unfair. He may well be the most dignified character on the boat—and he certainly couldn’t be labeled “a stock comedy Negro.” It is lamentable that the film suggests that Joe is a reformed pickpocket, but this is certainly overshadowed by Canada Lee’s dignified portrayal and the fact that he is the film’s moral anchor. In any case, Steinbeck’s request was ignored. The studio had agreed to the writer’s salary in part because they could exploit his name in the film’s publicity materials and they weren’t about to give that up.

SS01.jpg

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the Blu-ray disc in the standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that makes use of two different vintage one-sheet designs. The first side makes use of the original American one-sheet while the second side showcases the 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork. Both choices are better than the average home video artwork.

Blu-ray Cover (B).jpg

There is also a small Kino Lorber catalog included that features box art for many of their other releases.

Menu

The disc’s static menu also utilizes the hand-painted 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork and this works quite beautifully. Music from the film’s opening credit sequence can be heard underneath this image.

SS02.jpg

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber’s release of the film is a solid one that showcases more information on the left and right edges of the frame than the original DVD edition of the film. The image is remarkably film-live without appearing too grainy and this allows fine detail to shine through without any annoying issues. The film has never looked this sharp. The black levels are deep and accurate and contrast seems to accurately represent the film. There are a few scratches and some dirt can be seen on occasion but these never become problematic.

SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s mono DTS-HD Master Audio track seem to reproduce the film’s original audio without any issues. Problems like hiss, hum, pops, and crackle isn’t evident. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the atmospheric effects are given enough room to breathe. The music heard in the film credits seems a bit boxed in but this is the result of the original recording methods and not the transfer.

SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas is a critic for Video Watchdog and doesn’t seem to have any real authoritative knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock’s work. He does supply a wealth of knowledge and his analysis of the film is enjoyable, intriguing, and reasonably astute. However, the revelations provided are marred by a number of inaccuracies. For example, John Steinbeck was not responsible for the film’s premise as he was commissioned by Hitchcock to write the Lifeboat treatment in novella form. What’s more, Joe Spencer doesn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. He recites the 23rs Psalm. These are only two of a number of inaccuracies. Having said this, this commentary is worth one’s time for some of the theoretical analysis provided.

Audio Commentary by Film Professor Drew Casper

Drew Casper is a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and teaches courses on Alfred Hitchcock. His commentary is more languidly paced than the Tim Lucas commentary and there are more moments of silence. Much of the same information is offered here, and some of Casper’s authoritative statements are simply conjecture. However, the information that he offers is both interesting and worthwhile. What’s more, it is clear that he does have an abundance of knowledge about the director and his work while Tim Lucas seems to have retrieved most of his information from a simple Google search.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: Theater of War – (20:00)

Peter Ventrella’s retrospective “making-of” documentary isn’t as comprehensive as some of those made by Laurent Bouzereau during the early days of DVD, but it does offer much more background information than those he made about Alfred Hitchcock’s Warner Brothers films. Unfortunately, none of the film’s participants were on hand to discuss the film, but Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter), Mary Stone (Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter), Drew Casper (Hitchcock scholar), and Robert DeMott (Steinbeck scholar) appear during the program to provide some general background information and a few stories from the set. Viewers who are well versed in Hitchcock history might not find much new information here, but the vast majority of the population should learn quite a bit. It’s really a great addition to the disc!

Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview – (11:54)

It’s very pleasing to find that audio from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews is being added to the supplemental packages for Hitchcock’s films. These excerpts find Hitchcock discussing Lifeboat and his memories and thoughts are illustrated by still photos, posters, lobby cards, and footage from the film.

Lifeboat Blu-ray Promo – (01:27)

One wishes that Kino Lorber had included the film’s original theatrical trailer instead of this advertisement for this Blu-ray release. This really doesn’t add anything to the package and those who have already bought the disc don’t really need to be sold.

Additional Trailers

Interestingly, three theatrical trailers for other Kino Lorber releases are provided on the disc:

Compulsion Theatrical Trailer – (01:01)

Five Miles to Midnight Theatrical Trailer – (03:19)

23 Paces to Baker Street Theatrical Trailer – (02:15)

None of these are relevant to Lifeboat unless one considers that Anthony Perkins (Psycho) stars in Five Miles to Midnight, Vera Miles (The Wrong Man, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) appears in 23 Paces to Baker Street, and Compulsion—like Rope is based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murders (although Rope is based on a play that is loosely inspired by the murders while Compulsion is a direct adaptation of those events).

SS05.jpg

Final Words:

Kino Lorber’s solid transfer and a nice supplemental package make this an easy recommendation for Hitchcock enthusiasts and admirers of classic cinema!

SS06.jpg

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

blu-ray-cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 20, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 80 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: 2.0 English Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish

Ratio: 1.78:1

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

Cannes One Sheet

Cannes Film Festival’s One Sheet

“It’s a film that I was very excited about making because it’s a book that has meant a great deal to me for – I mean I’m fifty-five – so for the last forty-three years of my life. Hitchcock’s work, and Truffaut’s work to a certain extent as well – but Hitchcock’s work has for me a deeper connection because I started looking at his films right around the same time as I read the book, and I’ve been re-watching them over and over since then. I’ve never even started to count how many times I’ve seen Vertigo or Rear Window or Psycho or Saboteur or I Confess – and so, in that sense as well, it was something that was exciting for me. Then there was the idea of making a movie that really looked at the question of filmmaking, at a moment when the idea of filmmaking is a little bit debased – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – and looked at it in new and surprising ways. So those were all the things that were in my mind.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

An understanding and appreciation of the importance of Truffaut’s landmark text can be felt throughout Jones’ remarkably engaging documentary. It is reasonable for cinephiles to temper their excitement about such a film with certain misgivings. Is it possible that the documentary might overshadow or replace the essential book that inspired it, or will it inspire further interest and appreciation for the text? We are more than a little pleased to report that the latter is the case.

François Truffaut would be quite happy to know that his book is still influencing the landscape of cinema and that it remains the single point from which all other Hitchcock scholarship revolves. After all, it was his intention to change the critical and public perception of Hitchcock as a mere entertainer or expert technician.

 “Nowadays the work of Alfred Hitchcock is admired all over the world. Young people who are just discovering his art through the current re-release of Rear Window and Vertigo, or through North by Northwest, may assume his prestige has always been recognized, but this is far from being the case…

…His fame had spread further throughout the world via the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the mid-fifties. But American and European critics made him pay for his commercial success by reviewing his work with condescension, and by belittling each new film…

From my past career as a critic, in common with all the young writers from Cahiers du Cinéma, I still felt the imperative need to convince. It was obvious that Hitchcock, whose genius for publicity was equaled only by that of Salvador Dalí, had in the long run been victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers and his deliberate practice of deriding their questions. In examining his films, it was obvious that he had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues. It occurred to me that if he would, for the first time, agree to respond seriously to a systematic questionnaire, the resulting document might modify the American critics’ approach to Hitchcock.

That is what this book is all about… I dare say that this book achieved this result. At the time it was published, however, a young American film professor predicted: ‘This book will do more harm to your reputation in America than your worst film.’ As it happens, Charles Thomas Samuels was mistaken. He committed suicide a year or two later, undoubtedly for other reasons. In fact, from 1968 on, American critics began to take Hitchcock’s work more seriously. Today, a movie like Psycho is regarded as a classic, and young film buffs have adopted Hitchcock wholeheartedly, without begrudging him his success, wealth, and fame.”François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

hitchcock-issue

Of course, things might be quite different today had Hitchcock not agreed to participate. It probably helped that Truffaut was a celebrated filmmaker himself at this point. This was not the case when François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock first met one another.

“That happened in 1955, when Alfred Hitchcock, having completed the location shooting of To Catch a Thief on the Côte d’Azur, came to the Saint-Maurice studios, in Joinville, for the post-synchronization of the picture. My friend Claude Chabrol and I decided to go there and interview him for Cahiers du Cinéma. Armed with a long list of intricate questions and a borrowed tape recorder, we sallied forth in high spirits.

In Joinville, we were directed to a pitch-black auditorium, where a loop showing Cary Grant and Brigitte Auber in a motorboat was being run continuously on the screen. In the darkness, we introduced ourselves to Hitchcock who courteously asked us to wait for him at the studio bar across the courtyard.

Both movie-crazy, thrilled by our brief preview of Hitchcock’s latest work, we emerged into the blinding glare of daylight, literally bursting with excitement. In the heat of our discussion, we failed to notice the dark-grey frozen pond in the middle of the courtyard. With a single step forward, we went over the ledge, landing on a thin layer of ice, which immediately gave way. Within seconds we were immersed in a pool of freezing water and a state of shock. In a hollow voice, I asked Chabrol ‘What about the tape recorder?’ He replied by slowly raising his left arm to hold the case in mid-air with the water bleakly oozing out from all sides like a stream of tears.

Staggering around the sloping basin, unable to reach the edge without sliding right back to the center, we were trapped in a situation straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Eventually, with the helping hand of a charitable bystander, we managed to reach firm ground. A wardrobe mistress who was passing by invited us to follow her to a dressing room where we might take off our clothes and dry out. When we attempted to thank her for her kindness, she said in a businesslike way, ‘What a way to make a living. Are you extras for Rififi?’ Upon learning that we were reporters, she lost all interest and told us to clear out.

A few minutes later, still soaking wet and shivering with cold, we made our way to the bar, where Hitchcock awaited us. He merely looked us over, and without a single comment on our appearance amiably suggested another appointment for that evening at the Hotel Plaza Athénée. A year later, upon spotting us at one of his Paris press conferences, Hitchcock finally acknowledged the incident by saying, ‘Gentlemen, every time I see a pair of ice cubes clicking together in a glass of whiskey, I think of you two.’

We subsequently learned that Hitchcock had embellished the incident with a twist of his own. According to the Hitchcock version, Chabrol was dressed as a priest and I was wearing a gendarme’s uniform when we turned up for the interview.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Had Truffaut requested that Hitchcock participate in a career spanning interview in 1955, it is quite likely that the portly genius would have politely declined the request. However, a decade can make quite a difference. When the French auteur sat down to write Hitchcock a letter in the summer of 1962, he wasn’t a journalist or a film critic. He was an admiring fellow-filmmaker.

“Dear Mr. Hitchcock,

First of all, allow me to remind you who I am. A few years ago, in late 1954, when I was a film journalist, I came with my friend Claude Chabrol to interview you at the Saint-Maurice studio where you were directing the post-synchronization of To Catch a Thief. You asked us to go and wait for you in the studio bar, and it was then that, in the excitement of having watched fifteen times in succession a ‘loop’ showing Brigitte Auber and Cary Grant in a speedboat, Chabrol and I fell into the frozen tank in the studio courtyard. You very kindly agreed to postpone the interview which was conducted that same evening at your hotel.

Subsequently, each time you visited Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting you with Odette Ferry, and for the following year you even said to me, ‘Whenever I see ice cubes in a glass of whiskey I think of you.’ One year after that, you invited me to come to New York for a few days and watch the shooting of The Wrong Man, but I had to decline the invitation since, a few months after Claude Chabrol, I turned to film-making myself.

I have made three films, the first of which, The 400 Blows, had, I believe, a certain success in Hollywood. The latest, Jules et Jim, is currently showing in New York. I come now to the point of my letter. In the course of my discussions with foreign journalists and especially in New York, I have come to realize that their conception of your work is often very superficial. Moreover, the kind of propaganda that we were responsible for in Cahiers du Cinéma was excellent as far as France was concerned, but inappropriate for America because it was too intellectual.

Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love for the cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself and it is that which I would like to talk to you about.

I would like you to grant me a tape-recorded interview which would take about eight days to conduct and would add up to about thirty hours of recordings. The point of this would be to distil not a series of articles but an entire book which would be published simultaneously in New York (I would consider offering it, for example, to Simon and Schuster where I have some friends) and Paris (by Gallimard or Robert Laffont), then, probably later, more or less everywhere in the world.

If the idea were to appeal to you, and you agreed to do it, here is how I think we might proceed: I could come and stay for about ten days wherever it would be most convenient for you. From New York I would bring with me Miss Helen Scott who would be the ideal interpreter; she carries out simultaneous translations at such speed that we would have the impression of speaking to one another without any intermediary and, working as she does at the French Film Office in New York, she is also completely familiar with the vocabulary of the cinema. She and I would take rooms in the hotel closest to your home or to whichever office you might arrange.

Here is the work schedule. Just a very detailed interview in chronological order. To start with, some biographical notes, then the first jobs you had before entering the film industry, then your stay in Berlin.

This would be followed by:

1. The British silent films;

2. the British sound films;

3. the first American films for Selznick and the spy films;

4. the two Transatlantic Pictures;

5. the Vistavision period;

6. from The Wrong Man to The Birds.

The questions would focus more precisely on:

a) The circumstances surrounding the inception of each film;

b) the development and construction of the screenplay;

c) the stylistic problems peculiar to each film;

d) the situation of the film in relation to those preceding it;

e) your own assessment of the artistic and commercial result in relation to your intentions.

There would be questions of a more general nature on good and bad scripts, different styles of dialogue, the direction of actors, the art of editing, [and] the development of new techniques, special effects, and color. These would be interspaced among the different categories in order to prevent any interruption in chronology.

The body of work would be preceded by a text which I would write myself and which might be summarized as follows: if overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and became once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.

If this project interests you, I would ask you to let me know how you would like to proceed. I imagine that you are in the process of editing The Birds, and perhaps you would prefer to wait a while?

For my part, at the end of this year, I am due to make my next films: an adaptation of a novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, which is why I would prefer the interviews to take place between 15 July and 15 September 1962.

If you were to accept the proposition, I would gather together all the documents I would need to prepare the four or five hundred questions which I wish to ask you, and I would have the Brussels Cinémathèque screen for me those films of yours with which I am least familiar. That would take me about three weeks, which would mean I could be at your disposal from the beginning of July.

A few weeks after our interviews, the transcribed, edited and corrected text would be submitted to you in English so that you might make any corrections that you considered useful, and the book itself would be ready to come out by the end of this year.

Awaiting your reply, I beg you to accept, dear Mr. Hitchcock, my profound admiration. I remain yours sincerely, Francois Truffaut” François Truffaut (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock, June 02, 1962)

The letter was effective and Alfred Hitchcock soon responded to the proposal with a telegram.

Dear Monsieur Truffaut, Your letter brought tears to my eyes, and I am so grateful to receive such a tribute from you. – Stop – I am shooting The Birds, and this will continue until 15 July, and after that, I will have to begin editing which will take me several weeks. – Stop – I think [that] I will wait until we have finished shooting The Birds, and then I will contact you with the idea of getting together around the end of August. – Stop – Thank you again for your charming letter. – Kind regards. – Cordially yours, Alfred Hitchcock.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Telegram to François Truffaut)

It is easy to understand how such an admiring letter might bring tears to a man’s eyes, and it is clear that Hitchcock was enthusiastic about the book. As fate would have it, the interviews commenced on August 13, 1962—Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday.

“Every morning he would pick us up at the Beverly Hills Hotel to take us to his office at Universal Studios. With each of us wearing a microphone and a sound engineer in the next room recording our voices, we kept up a running conversation from nine to six every day, achieving something of a track record as we talked our way through lunches.

A witty raconteur noted for his entertaining interviews, Hitchcock started out true to form, regaling us with a series of amusing anecdotes. It was only on the third day that he became more sober and thoughtful in spelling out the ups and downs of his career. His assessment of the achievements and the failures was genuinely self-critical, and his account of his doubts, frustrations, and hopes was completely sincere. What emerged as the talks progressed was a striking contrast between Hitchcock’s public image and his real self.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

photograph-of-francois-truffaut-alfred-hitchcock-and-helen-scott-taken-by-photographer-philippe-halsman

This is a photograph of Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, and Helen Scott that was taken by photographer Philippe Halsman.

The process of transcribing the interviews and editing them down into a cohesive book was a bit more difficult and time-consuming than Truffaut had predicted. His originally anticipated “few weeks” turned into years.

“While we were recording these talks with Hitchcock, the final editing of The Birds, his forty-eighth picture, was underway. It took us some four years to transcribe the tapes and gather the photographs. Whenever I met Hitchcock during this period, I would question him in order to update the book I called ‘the Hitchbook.’ The first edition, therefore, published at the end of 1967, concludes with his fiftieth film, Torn Curtain.” François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

The book would eventually be revised to include commentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s final three films and has gone on to change the way that critics look at Alfred Hitchcock’s work. In fact, it has altered film theory in general. Better yet, the project led to a friendship that lasted decades. Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut frequently corresponded and even consulted with one another regarding their current projects. When Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a career-altering film entitled Kaleidoscope (later re-titled Frenzy—but this project should not be confused with his 1972 film), he sent Francois Truffaut the script. Truffaut wrote back with an in-depth letter that included thoughtful script notes. (Universal later forced the director to abandon the project in favor of Topaz.) Truffaut was also among the many speakers when Hitchcock was presented with AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Of course, all of these things are touched upon in this wonderful documentary, but the infamous sound recordings of their trailblazing interview is the thread that holds the entire film together (and our readers will be relieved to note that the result is a better-tailored product than the suit that Norman Lloyd wore in Saboteur). The tapes of these recordings were discovered in the early nineties by Serge Toubiana, who co-wrote the film with Kent Jones.

“I wrote the project because my point of view is very specific because I am the guy who found the tapes a long time ago. It was in 1992. I was making a documentary on Truffaut at the time and I was working in the archives of Truffaut’s office in Les Films du Carrosse with a friend Michel Pascal who co-directed the documentary: Francois Truffaut: Stolen Portraits. I was looking in the archives and I found a big box and I opened it and we saw many reel-to-reel tapes. We put one of the reels on the Nagra and suddenly the voice of Hitchcock was there. It was a miracle, you know. These were the tapes from the famous dialogue between Truffaut and Hitchcock in August 1962 in Universal Studios in Hitchcock’s bungalow. And we had the voices, the three voices: Truffaut’s voice in French, Hitchcock speaking English and Helen Scott who translated, and it was incredible material. We put just a very small extract in the movie we did at the time…

…I read the book when I was very young in the 60s – the first edition in 1966 in France. You know the first edition is very special, it’s not “Hitchcock/Truffaut”–it’s “Le Cinema selon Alfred Hitchcock.” It was such an important book in my education of cinema. For me, this dialogue is one of the most important moments in the story of cinema because you have a young French director who was also an important critic, Francois Truffaut, who was thirty at the time in 1962 and had just made three movies. And you had Alfred Hitchcock who was the master. And this young guy he wanted to make, as he said in the introduction, a cookbook of how Hitchcock made his career as an auteur. So it’s a dialogue between the French theory of auteurs and a Hollywood director who had never won the Oscar but who was very famous as an entertainment director but not [considered] an auteur. And Truffaut wanted to prove that Hitchcock was a master. So it’s a dialogue between French and American cinema.” -Serge Toubiana (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Those who have already read the essential text should still find these audio excerpts fascinating because there are subtle differences that are rather revelatory.

“It comes as a revelation because in the book Hitchcock appears to be very cold, precise, distanced and kind of lacking in humor, except for some not very good jokes that he tells. The tapes are another matter entirely – he’s very warm and very funny and very spontaneous. And Truffaut did not speak a word of English and so he was very dependent on Helen Scott who was translating every word. She got some right, some not so right. Then her translation was amended in France, then he worked on the book, then I believe it was re-translated back into English – that’s the way it reads to me. So it’s a kind of a remove from Hitchcock – so in general, that’s a revelation. Also, the sense of him wondering if he should have spent more time on character is in the book, but you can hear him returning to it in the tapes. That’s fascinating and beautiful and very moving.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

These audio excerpts are illustrated by a wealth of wonderful film clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s vast filmography and are commented upon by ten of cinema’s most respected filmmakers: Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Olivier Assayas, Paul Schrader, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and James Gray. Some of these participants may seem like unusual choices, but this actually illustrates the far-reaching influence of Truffaut’s text. However, one does wonder why certain directors weren’t included in the film. A few obvious examples would be Guillermo del Toro—who considers himself a faithful student of Hitchcock’s, and Brian De Palma—who has made a career of directing blatant Hitchcock homages. However, this is more of an observation than an outright criticism.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is an extremely enjoyable experience and an in-depth appreciation of the landmark text. What is isn’t and what it was never intended to be—and this should be stressed—is a replacement for the landmark book. Cinephiles will still want to read and re-read Truffaut’s tome as it is the definitive source for anyone wishing to learn about the master of suspense. Similar book-length interviews about various filmmakers have been published in the years since but none offer such an in-depth commentary on such a long career or such a truly unique voice in the cinema. In fact, one hopes that the film renews enough interest in the book for publishers to see the potential of a brand-new edition that features a re-edited version of the text that doesn’t exclude quite as much material.

screenshot-1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal packages the Blu-ray disk in a standard Blu-ray case with fil related artwork that features a photo of François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that had originally appeared in Truffaut’s landmark book. The photo was later utilized in the artwork for this documentary’s theatrical one-sheet and this is the same artwork featured here.

The disc’s menu makes use of the same photograph and is accompanied by Jeremiah Bornfield’s score.

Screenshot 2.jpg

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s AVC encoded image transfer is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect. The interview segments are quite sharp and showcase an excellent level of detail, but the film’s archival footage is sometimes a bit less stellar. However, any shortcomings seem to be inherent in the documentary’s source elements—and these are never distracting. There is some also minor strobing during some of the textual footage, but this is barely noticeable. Most will be more than satisfied with the overall quality.

screenshot-3

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is really quite great, but the interview driven documentary doesn’t offer much in the way of dynamic surround speaker activity. What it does offer is a solid representation of the film’s original soundtrack—and this is all anyone has a right to expect.

screenshot-4

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Kent Jones in Conversation with Noah Baumbach – (23:51)

This is essentially more of a conversation about Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, the differences between the audio tapes and the book, how the documentary was shaped, and other such relevant topics. The Q&A was held after the film’s New York première on October 27th, 2015. It is an interesting conversation that never becomes boring even if there isn’t much in the way of revelatory information.

Peter Bogdanovich Remembers Hitchcock – (06:37)

This is the first of four featurettes that are obviously compilations of unused footage shot for the documentary that didn’t make it into the final film. They have each been edited to focus on a particular subject. In the case of this featurette, we have Peter Bogdanovich discussing Alfred Hitchcock and how he became to be associated with the director. It is an interesting little conversation with Bogdanovich, who is always an articulate and interesting interview subject.

An Appreciation of Notorious – (06:16)

Various interview subjects discuss Notorious, and it is clear that the participants have either a fondness or a sincere respect for the film. The observations are always interesting if never revelatory, and fans of the film will be especially happy to spend six minutes of their time watching this nice little featurette. This is probably the strongest of the four featurettes included on the disc, although it would have benefited from showing footage from the actual film.

Rope: Pro and Con – (05:01)

Some of the interview subjects discuss Rope and whether they think it is a good film or merely an interesting failed experiment. A case for both sides is argued, but there seems to be a slight preference for footage where participants discuss why the film doesn’t work. It is an interesting little featurette but fans of the film might be a bit put off.

Richard Linklater on Truffaut – (03:52)

This is a short piece that finds Richard Linklater discussing his admiration for Truffaut and the “Hitchbook.” There isn’t much in the way of information here, but it is a nice little surface level conversation. One of the more interesting comments made here is that Truffaut probably could have added another film to his filmography in the time it took him to prepare the book.

Screenshot 5.jpg

Final Words:

Hitchcock/Truffaut is one of the absolutely essential documentaries concerning Alfred Hitchcock and it comes to Blu-ray with a solid transfer from Universal Studios.

Review by: Devon Powell

One Sheet.jpg

Source Material:

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock: Revised Edition, October 2, 1985)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebook’s, 1999)

Unknown (Hitchcock/Truffaut Press Kit, 2015)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

 

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Wait Until Dark

blu-ray-cover

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: January 24, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:47:41

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 35.00 Mbps

Notes: This title was previously released in various DVD editions.

title

“On Broadway a couple of seasons ago, Wait Until Dark seemed like a wrong number for playwright Frederick Knott, who once dialed ‘M’ for murder. The thriller’s screen incarnation gives him a chance to call again. This time he gets through—with a better scenario, set and cast.” –Time (Cinema: The Return of the Helpless Girl, November 03, 1967)

It probably wasn’t terribly surprising for Time magazine readers to read an immediate reference to Dial M for Murder in the opening paragraph of their review for Wait Until Dark. Most viewers were probably already drawing comparisons to the earlier film. Like Charade before it, Wait Until Dark is often cited as one of “the best Hitchcock films that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t actually direct.” However, the connection between Alfred Hitchcock and Wait Until Dark seems less tenuous due to his collaboration with Frederick Knott on the screenplay adaptation of Dial ‘M’ for Murderwhich had already enjoyed immense stage success by the time our favorite director had gotten ahold of the property.

1966-playbill

This is a 1966 Playbill for the stage production of Wait Until Dark.

Wait Until Dark enjoyed similar success when it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on February 2, 1966. Lee Remick’s portrayal of Susy Hendrix earned her a Tony Award nomination and after eleven months and 374 performances, the play had generated a solid reputation and had become a hot Hollywood property. Fortunately, Seven Arts had bought the film rights shortly after its Broadway opening, and Mel Ferrer had begun putting together a production package that would include Audrey Hepburn in the starring role. (It has been suggested that the project may have been a last-ditch effort to save their troubled marriage.)

Julie Herrod and Audrey Hepburn

Julie Herrod had previously portrayed Gloria in the original Broadway production of Wait Until Dark.

The resulting film was an extremely diverting experience which contained a few stellar performances (especially by Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin) and an incredibly suspenseful final act. However, if the film has a Hitchcockian veneer, it is largely the result of Knott’s skillful use of the same genre tropes that made Dial ‘M’ for Murder such a success. A few of Terence Young’s directorial flourishes could have been cribbed from Hitchcock, but they certainly weren’t given the same dexterous execution.

For example, Young makes decent use of the “caged character” shot that features in so many of Hitchcock’s films, but instead of allowing the audience to process the shot on a subconscious level, he insists on driving it home by having Audrey Hepburn grab the rails of her stairway in a moment of emotional desperation. This moment in the film is certainly effective, but it isn’t nearly as seamless or as graceful as Hitchcock’s approach.

wait-until-dark-hitchcockian-bars

When this shot appears in a Hitchcock film, the characters in question do not resort to such histrionics—and they certainly don’t interact with their cage!  They simply feel trapped, and the image reflects the character’s emotion. In fact, one might say that the image renders such histrionics as completely unnecessary.

the-caged-character-3-examples

These screenshots from The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt, and The Wrong Man are only a few examples of many “caged character” shots in the Hitchcock canon.

This isn’t to suggest that Wait Until Dark isn’t a terrific film. One simply feels that critics often describe certain directorial flourishes as “Hitchcockian” without really taking the time to understand the differences in technique or execution. This is unfortunate, because a film should really be considered on its own terms and enjoyed for its own merits.

SS01.jpg

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. It is a better than average design that should please most fans.

menu

The menu utilizes this same artwork and are easy to navigate. However, the unusual absence of chapter menus might bother some viewers.

SS02.jpg

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Archives continues their reputation for impressive Blu-ray transfers with this incredible new Blu-ray release. To say that this is an improvement over the previous DVD releases is an understatement. Detail and clarity are both vastly improved and look great here, and grain is surprisingly well managed. Colors seem to reflect the filmmaker’s original intentions as well, and they seem more natural here than they did on previous releases of the film.

SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The sound is also improved upon here and sounds better than the heavily compressed tracks available on the DVD releases. The English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio track might be less dynamic than some of the more robust mixes in recent years, but this is a great transfer of the original mono mix and music, sound effects, and dialogue are all rendered with incredible fidelity.

SS04.jpg

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

A Look in the Dark: The Making of Wait Until Dark – (08:40)

To call this short featurette a “making of” retrospective is actually rather misleading. It would be more appropriate to label the program as an appreciation. Alan Arkin and Mel Ferrer are on hand to reminisce about the film’s production, but their memories aren’t terribly vivid and never really penetrate past such surface level topics as Arkin’s approach to portraying Roat, Hepburn’s wonderful talent, and the film’s positive reception upon its release. It never becomes tedious or boring, and there are a few interesting revelations here that make it a welcome addition to the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:36)

It was interesting to see how the film was sold to the public upon its release, although this particular trailer is rather straightforward and is constructed from footage of the film’s climax with the following voiceover narration:

“Audrey Hepburn. The role you’re going to remember whenever you’re alone.”

Warning Trailer – (01:08)

More interesting is this “warning trailer” that is essentially an audience “teaser.” There is less actual footage used here. We merely see provocative images that are followed by a textual scroll (complete with voiceover).

Over the brief introductory footage, we hear a slightly different take on the narration used for the main trailer:

“Audrey Hepburn. The role you’re going to remember whenever you are alone.”

This is followed by the aforementioned textual scroll that makes the following announcement:

 “During the last eight minutes of this picture the theatre will be darkened to the legal limit, to heighten the terror of the breathtaking climax which takes place in nearly total darkness on the screen. If there are sections where smoking is permitted, those patrons are respectfully requested not to jar the effect by lighting up during this sequence. And of course, no one will be seated at this time.”

It is an interesting glimpse at the film’s infamous marketing campaign (which has been compared to the infamous marketing campaign used for Psycho).

SS05.jpg

Final Words:

Wait Until Dark is essential viewing for those who enjoy suspense yarns, classic cinema, or Audrey Hepburn, and this solid Blu-ray transfer from Warner Archives is the best way to enjoy the film in one’s home environment.

SS06.jpg

Review by: Devon Powell

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Taxi Driver – 40th Anniversary Edition

Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Sony Pictures

Release Date: November 08, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 114 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

5.1 French DTS-HD Master Audio

5.1 Portuguese DTS-HD Master Audio

5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital

+ Various Other Languages

Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Mandarin, Thai

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: Sony released an earlier Blu-ray edition of this film that is quite remarkable in its own right and a 2-Disc DVD “Special Edition” set is also available. This review compares this 40th Anniversary Edition with the previous Blu-ray release.

title

“What happens is that you find, through these images, a way of writing with the camera that stays in your mind. The Wrong Man by Hitchcock has more to do with the camera movements in Taxi Driver than any other picture I can think of. It’s such a heavy influence because of the sense of guilt and paranoia. Look at the scenes where Henry Fonda has to go back to the bank with the police and just walk up and down while the tellers look at him. They’re deciding a man’s fate. And watch the camera moves. Or the use of color in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. I think there’s that kind of influencing. It’s not necessarily direct stealing. Each film is interlocked with so many other films. You can’t get away. Whatever you do now that you think is new was already done in 1913.” -Martin Scorsese (Interview with Roger Ebert, January 11, 1998)

Scorsese learned his art from those who came before him. He studied and passionately dissected great works with such an intensity that he became one of the most important cinematic voices of his generation—if not the most important. Today’s new crop of filmmakers would do well to follow his example, and they might start with Taxi Driver. The film is Scorsese’s first masterwork, and it is a prime example of the importance of story over plot.

“The films that I constantly revisited or saw repeatedly held up longer for me over the years—not because of plot but because of character and a very different approach to story. Just for example, talk about Hitchcock and we see his films in the fifties as they came out: Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, all the way up to—you know, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and into Psycho… but I think over the years the films that I enjoy watching repeatedly—The Wrong Man, for example, is a picture that I’ve used as an example of mood, paranoid style, beautiful New York location photography. It was a picture that I screened for Michael Chapman, Paul Schrader, and everybody for Taxi Driver. And I think ultimately it was one of the reasons I said Bernard Herrmann had to do the score. You know, I think so. And I talked about the paranoid camera moves, the feelings of threat… I find that that [sic] is more interesting to me… I saw Rebecca maybe ten times—fourteen times. But [at] a certain point—for me the style of Hitchcock in that film is only in the sequence when Mrs. Danvers shows Rebecca’s room to Joan Fontaine. That’s about it. For the rest of it, I know the plot and it’s not interesting anymore.” -Martin Scorsese (Dinner for Five, 2004)

The Wrong Man

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man was an acknowledged inspiration to Martin Scorsese while he was planning Taxi Driver.

Scorsese seems to prefer films that stress character and ambiguity of feeling, thinking, and motivation. This tendency is an important part of his own filmography. Actions are always motivated, and those engaging with the film will sense this. However, he doesn’t always spell everything out for his audiences. We watch the characters act and react while he leaves it to his audiences to piece everything together. This is why a Scorsese film merits repeat viewings.

There are layers of subtext to explore and many new things that one can discover with each screening, and Taxi Driver is a textbook example of this powerful approach to filmmaking. Travis Bickle is one of the most memorable social misfits in all of cinema because he is simultaneously inscrutable and accessible. Martin Scorsese once claimed that Taxi Driver was born out of his “feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state—or like taking dope.” The vagueness of the narrative contributes to the film’s dream-like nature and provides an extremely subjective experience. Perhaps this is the reason that Taxi Driver has endured for 40 years. People experience the film in ways that are accessible to them. The film grows and changes with the viewer and its power never diminishes.

SS1.jpg

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

If anyone is going to negatively compare this new 40th Anniversary Edition to Sony’s 2011 Digi-book release, it will be due solely to the fact that this new release is given a more standard presentation. The two discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case with film-related artwork that originated as one of the film’s American one-sheet designs. The case is further protected by a slipcover that utilizes this same artwork. The 12 5 x 7 semi-gloss lobby card photographs included with Sony’s previous release of Taxi Driver aren’t included here either. However, it should be firmly stated that the artwork used for this release is vastly superior to the “Digi-book” art, and this nearly makes up for any perceived deficiencies.

The animated menu for Disc One of this release is essentially the same as the previous release. It has been altered only to include and exclude certain items (since this release adds a new program and spreads the supplementary materials between two discs). They are still extremely attractive and showcase the incredible Bernard Herrmann score to good effect.

SS2.jpg

Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

This excellent transfer stems from the film’s 4K restoration which was supervised by Martin Scorsese and Michael Chapman in an effort to ensure that their original visions were kept intact. The resulting transfer is exceptional. It is difficult to imagine that the film ever looked any better than it does on this incredible transfer—although Sony’s 2011 Blu-ray release is certainly comparable (if not equal) to this new edition.

Both transfers exhibit a cinematic layer of grain that is faithful to its celluloid source and the image seems to be free of any DNR or scrubbing of the image. Edge enhancement is also never an issue. Instead, the image maintains the film’s detail in a manner that is much clearer than it has ever been on home video prior to the 4K restoration. Shadow detail is top notch and blacks seem surprisingly accurate and free of any issues. Colors also seem to be rendered accurately. The only noticeable flaw in the entire image is the shoddy looking Columbia logo at the beginning of the film.

This 40th Anniversary Edition might have a marginal edge over that earlier release but it is difficult to notice any distinct differences with the naked eye.

ss3

Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Our ears cannot hear any noticeable differences when comparing this 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio transfer to the one included with the 2011 release, but we can say that there isn’t much room for complaint about either edition.

While the track will not compete with more modern sound mixes, it represents the film as it should be represented. The film’s source elements are produced here with fantastic fidelity. The dialogue is mixed at consistent levels and is always extremely clear. Bernard Herrmann’s classic score has never sounded as good as it does here. It is conceivable that a few people might complain that the surround activity of the mix is limited, but purists will agree that this is as is it should be. It is difficult to imagine that this film has ever sounded better than it does on this here. 

SS4.jpg

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

This is one of those rare Blu-ray releases that takes a seemingly perfect supplemental package and improves upon it. Sony’s 2011 release included a comprehensive set of supplemental material that we gave five stars (and it absolutely deserved them). It would have been very difficult to predict that it was even possible to improve upon that package, but this release includes a few more supplements that manage to make this release even more outstanding.

The supplements are spread throughout two separate discs:

Disc 1 (Blu-ray):

Audio Commentary with Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader

This feature length commentary with Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader is the best of the discs three commentary tracks. The track was originally recorded for the 1986 Criterion Laserdisc release. Scorsese dominates the track and offers his thoughts on the production. He is always engaging. Schrader’s comments are repeated in his solo track but offer another perspective on occasion. It is an essential listening experience for fans of the film.

Audio Commentary with Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader discusses the film from a writer’s standpoint. His commentary is leisurely paced, but he does offer a few interesting details about the production along the way.

Audio Commentary with Robert Kolker

Robert Kolker (Author of “A Cinema of Loneliness”) delivers an extremely engaging and screen specific analysis of the entire film. Kolker delivers his commentary in an enthusiastic manner that manages to keep the track from becoming overly dry.

Taxi Driver Q&A – (1080p) – (41:56)

This 40-minute conference is moderated by Kent Jones and includes Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Michael Phillips, Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, and Harvey Keitel in a panel discussion about the legendary production. It was recorded live at the Beacon Theatre in New York City at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and covers much of the same anecdotal information discussed in the various documentaries and featurettes included elsewhere in this supplemental package. It is interesting as a sort of reunion but the included information is more fully explored in some of the other features. Having said this, fans will probably agree that it is a nice addition to this new Blu-ray edition.

Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver – (1080p) – (16:52)

This featurette features Scorsese as he looks back on the film and discusses several aspects of production. Some of this information is repeated in the “Making of” documentary, but this never becomes an issue. The director is always interesting and it is important to have a featurette that focuses on his memories of the production.

Producing Taxi Driver – (1080p) – (09:53)

Michael Phillips (Producer) and Paul Schrader (Screenwriter) discuss the difficulties of getting Taxi Driver made from a producer’s standpoint.

God’s Lonely Man – (1080p) – (21:42)

Paul Schrader discusses the Travis Bickel character in great detail and also covers his experiences writing the script. Most of this information was discussed in his commentary track.

Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute – (1080p) – (18:30)

Sony neglected to list this featurette on the back of the Blu-ray and on the press releases for this Blu-ray release, but fans can breathe a sigh of relief and rest easy in the knowledge that it has indeed been carried over for this 40th Anniversary release.

Scorsese’s associates and contemporaries (Robert De Niro, Paul Schrader, Roger Corman, Oliver Stone, and others) discuss the director and his legacy. This is an interesting featurette, but one wishes that it was a more comprehensive look at the director’s legendary career.

Travis’ New York – (1080p) – (06:16)

Michael Chapman, Ed Koch, and a few other participants discuss New York as it was in the 1970s and the changes that were made in the years since that period.

Travis’ New York Locations – (1080p) – (04:49)

This interesting split-screen style supplement showcases nine of the film’s scenes as footage from the same location is shown as they appeared in 2006. It is certainly interesting to see the drastic changes made to these locations.

Taxi Driver Stories – (1080p) – (22:23)

Cab drivers (and former cab drivers) share their experiences of working in New York in the 1970s. This featurette is interesting but it is one of the less essential supplements included on the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:56)

Fans will be happy to note that this 40th Anniversary Edition includes a small upgrade that has escaped publicity. Instead of the awful DVD promo for Taxi Driver that was included on the previous Blu-ray, we are given the actual vintage theatrical trailer for the film. This should bring a smile to the faces of anyone who was disappointed to find that it wasn’t included in previous editions (and this reviewer certainly falls into that category).

Interactive Script to Screen:

This supplement allows the viewer to read a slightly reorganized screenplay as they view the film. It is an instructive experience.

Disk 2 (DVD):

Making Taxi Driver – (01:10:55)

Laurent Bouzereau’s comprehensive documentary on the making of Taxi Driver is still the best feature on a disc full of excellent supplements. With a length of over 70 minutes, every aspect of production is discussed by the film’s cast and crew (Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Michael Chapman, and more).

Intro to Storyboards by Martin Scorsese – (04:32)

Martin Scorsese discusses his reasons for using storyboards to help him plan (or pre-visualize) his scenes.

Storyboard to Film Comparison – (08:21)

Viewers are shown rough pre-production sketches of some of the shots as they play along with footage from the film. It is an interesting supplement.

Animated Photo Galleries – (09:28)

This feature is essentially a collection of four photo galleries (Bernard Herrmann Score, On Location, Publicity Materials, and Scorsese at Work) that are edited into video montages that feature Bernard Herrmann’s score.

SS5.jpg

Final Words:

Taxi Driver is an amazing film and a classic that is required viewing for everyone. Many cinephiles still hold the film up as the director’s best film, and this new 40th Anniversary Edition is a grand tribute that manages to marginally improve upon their already excellent 2011 Blu-ray release. The 4K restoration image, incredible sound mix, and comprehensive supplementary material make the disc an essential purchase for those who have not already indulged in the earlier release—and it might validate an upgrade for those who already own the earlier release due to the new Q & A featurette. However, most fans will probably be quite happy simply owning one of either two releases.

SS6.jpg

Review by: Devon Powell

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

blu-ray-cover

Spine #523

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)

Vintage Advertisment.jpg

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.

ss1

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.

ss2

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.

ss3

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.

ss4

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.

ss5

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: Psycho IV: The Beginning

Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Shout Factory

Release Date: August 23, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 96 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.78:1

Notes: This title is available in various DVD editions of the film from Universal Pictures.

Title

“It was a great burden of responsibility to carry on the tale first told by one of cinema’s greatest artists, and I was a very young filmmaker, in age as well as in experience, who had a lot to prove.  I was more worried about not f**king it up than anything else.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

Perhaps the mysteries of Norman’s past should remain a mystery. One has to wonder what Alfred Hitchcock would have thought about the three Psycho sequels. The world will never have a definitive answer to this question, but it can be said with some authority that his writing collaborator on Psycho, Joseph Stefano, was never terribly fond of the first two sequels.

Those films changed Norman from a sensitive and pitiful – if not sympathetic – villain into a laughable figure… Psycho II and III say, in effect, there’s no way to survive with a psychological problem. If you’ve got it, the law can keep you locked up because there’s no chance for cure. I thought, ‘Vile!’ I don’t think l need that message. It’s just not true.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Stefano’s disdain for Psycho’s first two sequels might come as a surprise to anyone who remembers that the screenwriter provided the screenplay for Psycho IV: The Beginning. It becomes all the more amazing when one considers that the film was made for television (originally airing on Showtime on November 10, 1990). To say that the film wasn’t a prestige project would be an understatement. After the critical and box-office failure of Psycho III, it is surprising that Universal even bothered with the film at all.

30 years earlier, while Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stephano were preparing the screenplay for Psycho, they would often discuss Norman’s backstory. The two men threw around a number of possibilities as to what might have happened in that old Victorian house, and these conversations formed the impetus for the Psycho IV screenplay.

“Hitch was interested in what I had to offer, like one of my background ideas for Norman’s upbringing. I imagined a scene—which people will recognize from Psycho IV –where Norman is horsing around with his mother. When she notices he has an erection, she becomes rabid. To teach him once and for all that’s he’s not supposed to do that, she forces him to put on a dress, smears lipstick on his face, and locks him in a closet. The incident had no place in Psycho, but I told Hitch anyway, and he was fascinated—very curious about things of that nature, Freudian psychological backgrounds.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Erection Scene

The accidental erection scene in Psycho IV: The Beginning: Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey portray Norman and Norma Bates.

The third sequel was meant to represent a tonal change for the series. The previous sequels could be described as “over the top,” and everyone involved wanted the film’s prequel to have a more sober tone.

“In the run of the making of the film sequels, it seemed that the treatment of Norman, after all the years of his iconography and being spoofed and satirized, it seemed that there was a tendency to lean towards ‘camp’ in portraying him in the sequels, and I wanted to bring that down, and give him the complexity and danger that his character possessed in Hitchcock’s original.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

It is arguable as to whether Garris succeeded in his efforts to tone down the camp elements that featured in the previous sequels, but it seems that Joseph Stephano had similar notions while writing the script. He even went out of his way to avoid mentioning the events that occurred in the two previous sequels in any real detail.

“Gearing up for Psycho IV, I decided to ignore the two sequels – like the business in II about Norman’s mother. Instead, I based my script on background material I’d had in my mind for over 30 years—information that couldn’t be in the original without giving the ending away. I wrote five drafts, making changes because of time and budget constraints. Thanks to the director, Mick Garris, my vision was on screen almost intact.

In Psycho IV, the time is five years after III, and Norman is out of the hospital. He’s a married man, and he’s finally learned how to love somebody and have natural sex without killing his lover. But when Norman’s wife becomes pregnant, there’s a crisis. His fear that his illness will be passed on to a new generation prompts him to call into a radio talk show focusing on matricide. As the film progresses, he resorts to the only neurosis that ever worked for him.

The question might be asked why, if Norman is cured, does he revert back to his old ways? I think he explains when he says, ‘I’m cured, as I’ll ever be, but I’m still me.’ No matter how cured we are of certain psychoses, we revert when the chips are down. The film couldn’t just be about Norman getting cured. It had to be about that cure coming undone…

…So far, audience reaction has been good, and I’m pleased. With the exception of Variety, which called the movie ‘Psycho-babble,’ the reviews have also been strong. Norman Bates has a crisis, but the resolution leaves everyone glowing – which is not the reaction you’d expect after seeing a Psycho movie.

People may be surprised at the ending I chose, but if you’ve done your homework, I think it will seem natural. Any other way would have been preposterous – just one more dreadful Psycho sequel. It will end as life would have it end.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Stephano seemed satisfied with the finished product, but it must be said that Variety wasn’t the film’s only critic. Many people disliked that the film ignored the two previous sequels and considered these omissions glitches in the series’ continuity. This could easily be argued either way. However, it must be said that the two previous films were subtly alluded to in the film’s dialogue: “After the last murder four years ago—umm—murders, plural…

Some might question whether it is feasible that Norman Bates could be rehabilitated in four or five short years, but one might evade such logistical speedbumps by telling themselves that he was released under his wife’s care—especially considering the fact that she is a psychiatrist. That Norman’s aunt, Emma Spool, isn’t mentioned doesn’t represent any real glitch in continuity. After all, she was absent during Norman’s formative years. There might be an issue with the death of Norman’s father—unless the bee stings said to have killed him were caused by Spool. It is too bad that these stings were shown on the corpse, because the bee sting story could have also been a subterfuge meant to keep an unsettling and violent reality from affecting the very young Norman. One does wish to give a film the benefit of the doubt. Then again, all of this is probably an exercise in futility, because one could simply choose to experience the film as a direct sequel to Psycho. Alternative timelines are actually rather common among horror sequels.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

“All you really have to know is that Norman once again got hauled off to the rubber Ramada and, as he says, he wanted to be either executed or locked away forever so that he would never hurt anybody again, because Norman is, at heart, a benevolent soul with a dark side. But Norman’s conscious mind is always on the positive things in life. So once again he’s in and once again he’s out.” -Anthony Perkins (The Washington Post, November 04, 1990)

There are other problematic elements in Joseph Stephano’s script that are much more unfortunate, because they could very well alter one’s understanding of Hitchcock’s original film. The first issue concerns the nature of Norma Bates. Stephano has written her as a one-dimensional monster, and this becomes the film’s fatal flaw. It is true that we see fleeting moments of kindness, but these seem to be quite few in number. This represents a missed opportunity, because one wishes for a more dynamic and multilayered personality than what we see here. Norma’s character seems to be more complex and interesting as portrayed by Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel. (Although, this series comes with a list of its own issues.) It is wrong to assume that Norman’s projection of a shrewish personality upon his mother is an accurate reflection of her character. This shrewishness was more likely born out of his own anger towards himself and the insane jealousy that he felt. Frankly, it is surprising to find that Stephano didn’t recognize this.

The other problem concerns the actions of Connie Bates (Donna Mitchell). Why would an established psychiatrist risk Norman’s mental health—and her own safety—by actively trying to conceive a child without his knowledge? It is established that she knew the extent of Norman’s anxieties about the issue, and she should know that betraying his trust could do irrefutable damage. One will admit that Connie isn’t one of the more developed characters in his screenplay, but it is clear that her character isn’t supposed to be a devious personality. This part of the film seems forced and underdeveloped, and the blame rests largely on Stephano’s shoulders.

Luckily, the script issues are overshadowed by a very powerful character named Norman Bates. It is incredibly difficult not to be drawn into this unusual but sympathetic character’s universe. What’s more, Mick Garris enhances our experience of this unique universe with a number of interesting stylistic choices.

“I wanted the colors to be highly saturated, to set up an immediate contrast to the Hitchcock original.  I wanted to set it apart right up front, without dismissing the connection with the characters, the house, the motel, and all of the iconic imagery that we wanted to emphasize… It was important that the radio station be very contained, almost claustrophobic and modern, with the blue light emphasizing the technological world of today.  Norman’s home was warmer, with a glow of nostalgia.  But there would be shocking intrusions of red, as when Norman cuts himself and bleeds into the sink. In the flashbacks especially, I wanted the colors to be heightened, almost a historical Technicolor richness to it, as I feel our memories are more colorful than reality.

There also needed to be a real sense of visual exaggeration.  And I wanted to place Norman into his own flashbacks at his own age at the time and as he was as he relived them, to place the modern Norman into his own memories.  That was a lot of fun. I just really wanted to give the language of cinema a real workout, which is not easy when it was shot in 24 days for television.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

While his direction is never as accomplished as Alfred Hitchcock’s, Garris does manage to create interest (even if suspense is lacking). It is also nice to see that he brought an element back to the film that was sorely missed in the two previous sequels.

“I didn’t know why no one had used one of the greatest scores ever in the preceding two sequels with the unbelievable Bernard Herrmann score for Psycho, which he described as black and white music because there was no horns and percussion, just strings. So, we actually orchestrated that music.” –Mick Garris (Trailers from Hell, 2013)

These Bernard Herrmann themes elevate the film and give it a vitality that surpasses one’s expectations—as long as those expectations are reasonable. Psycho IV: The Beginning isn’t much more than an interesting footnote about the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s enduring classic. It contains a number of strong performances, and there are many good ideas scattered throughout the film. Unfortunately, these ideas never seem to congeal, and the end result feels like a missed opportunity. Alfred Hitchcock’s influence upon Joseph Stephano’s screenplay for the original Psycho was paramount, and his absence here is sorely felt.

SS1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with a slightly altered version of the same one sheet artwork has been used since the film’s original broadcast.

The menu also utilizes this artwork and is accompanied by an iconic Bernard Herrmann theme that we all know and love. The overall result isn’t particularly special, but it is a reasonably attractive presentation.

SS2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is surprising to find that Shout Factory’s transfer of Psycho IV: The Beginning exhibits a reasonably high level of detail. One can see textures and facial pores, and clarity is also nicely rendered. Television films rarely look this good (even in high definition). Black levels are accurate and do not crush important details that hide in the darker recesses of the screen. One doesn’t wish to say that colors are natural here, but they do seem to be accurately represented. The lighting design is rather dramatic to say the least. It is nice to see them vividly represented here. Skin tones certainly look natural when they are lit naturally. There is a healthy layer of film grain to help the viewer forget the film’s television origins, and it is nice to see that it hasn’t been scrubbed clean. Nothing in the way of noise or digital artifacts seem to distract from what looks like a very solid transfer. It never approaches perfection, but this particular title isn’t likely to see a better 1080p transfer.

It should also be mentioned that the film was composed for widescreen, because it would receive a very limited theatrical release after its initial Showtime broadcast. Mick Garris states in the included commentary that he is happy to see that the film is presented in the widescreen format on this disc, so purists do not need to protest the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This release serves as a bridge between its 1.33:1 television format and the 1.85:1 theatrical format.

SS3

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

To be honest, this is a rather remarkable 2.0 stereo sound mix. It isn’t likely to give one’s speakers a workout, but it is clearly rendered and well balanced. The film’s iconic music is impressively mixed, and dialogue is always clean and clearly audible. The track has more life than anyone has any right to expect.

SS4

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Audio Commentary featuring Mick Garris (Director), Henry Thomas (Actor), and Olivia Hussey (Actor)

This informal track finds Mick Garris leading a conversation about the film’s production with Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey. The resulting track is surprisingly engaging if not ultimately enlightening. There aren’t any memorable dead spots in their discussion to interrupt the flow of information. Fans of the film should be thrilled to have this included on the disc.

Rare Behind-the-Scenes Footage – (HD) – (13:15)

This rare VHS footage from Mick Garris gives viewers a rare glimpse behind the scenes as the cast and crew work on some of the scenes that take place at the radio station. The footage was taken on the first day of the shoot. One of the more interesting aspects of the footage concerns a brief excerpt of dialogue that alludes to Emma Spool and the events of Psycho II and III. Joseph Stephano always claimed that he chose to ignore these events, so this raises questions as to whether this bit of dialogue was added to the script by someone else.

The Making of Mother: An Interview with Tony Gardner – (HD) – (27:41)

Tony Gardner (makeup effects artist)  isn’t the most articulate speaker, but his memories about his love for Alfred Hitchcock’s original film and his work as an effects artist for Psycho IV are interesting enough. He covers quite a bit of territory considering the limited scope of his experience. Fans of the film will certainly find the interview interesting.

A Look at the Scoring of Psycho IV – (HD) – (06:12)

This vintage VHS footage was taken during the film’s scoring sessions and is ultimately a rather anemic look at this aspect of filmmaking. It is vaguely interesting but less engaging than the on-set footage. Those interested in film scoring might gravitate towards this short glimpse at the scoring sessions, but they will be more likely to remember some of the other features.

Photo Gallery – (HD) – (06:06)

This collection of rare photos from Mick Garris is reasonably interesting but not particularly spectacular.

SS5.jpg

Final Words:

Shout Factory has given Psycho IV: The Beginning a solid Blu-ray release. It isn’t one of their strongest Blu-ray transfers, but it is probably the best that this title is likely to receive.

Review by: Devon Powell

SS6

 Source Material:

Steve Biodrowski (Interview: Psycho Screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Michael E. Hill (Psycho IV: Tony Perkins Takes Norman Back to the Beginning, The Washington Post, November 04, 1990)

Mick Garris (Trailers from Hell, 2013)

Lee Gambin (Q&A: Horror Maestro Mick Garris Revisits “Psycho IV: The Beginning, Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

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

Blu-ray Cover

Spine #828

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.

SS1

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.

SS2.jpg

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.)

SS3.jpg

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.

SS4.jpg

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.

SS5.jpg

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

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: William Castle Double Feature: Homicidal & Mr. Sardonicus

Blu-ray Cover 1

Distributor: Mill Creek Entertainment

 Release Date: July 19, 2016

 Region: Region A

Length:

88 min (Homicidal)

90 min (Mr. Sardonicus)

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 Dolby Digital (448kbps)

Subtitles: None

Ratio:

1.85:1 (Homicidal)

1.78:1 (Mr. Sardonicus)

Notes: This is the high definition debut of “Homicidal,” but “Mr. Sardonicus” previously received a Blu-ray release as part of another “double feature” release from Mill Creek Entertainment in North America. Both titles are available in various DVD editions.

HitchHead

William Castle’s on-screen introductions to his films might bring to mind those witty opening and closing monologues that bookended Alfred Hitchcock’s television shows. His appearances in the promotional trailers for his films might even bring to mind Hitchcock’s amusing theatrical trailers. However, there are major differences between Hitchcock’s understated approach and William Castles overstated approach to these appearances. It seems that Castle just couldn’t quite get inside Hitchcock’s head!

The Master of Suspense Vs. The Master of Schlock

“…Then I did the money-back guarantee for 1961’s Homicidal. That broke into Life, Time, and all the magazines. I had remembered Hitchcock, and Psycho (1960), with its ‘nobody seated after the picture starts’ rule. I thought I could out-Hitchcock Hitchcock with this thing. So, I said, ‘I’ll give them their money back in the last minute of the picture, if anyone is too frightened to stay in the theatre.” -William Castle (October 24, 1973)

William Castle’s efforts to “out-Hitchcock Hitchcock” is evident not only in the marketing of Homicidal, but also in the film’s plot and structure. It was an obvious attempt at capitalizing on the success of Psycho. This becomes rather interesting when one considers that Alfred Hitchcock was inspired to make Psycho after noticing that William Castle (and others like him) were making a good deal of money with their cheaply produced horror films. Hitchcock couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if such a film was skillfully made by a more talented director (such as himself). It would give him an opportunity to experiment while appealing to a new generation of moviegoers. The resulting film was so successful that it resulted in a string of imitations, and it seems fitting that Castle would be one of the first filmmakers to make such an effort.

Comparison 0

Comparison 1 Comparison 3

Unfortunately, William Castle seems to have misunderstood the entire purpose behind Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant marketing campaign. Hitchcock’s approach was born out of an effort to ensure that audiences weren’t distracted by the absence of Janet Leigh (the film’s biggest star) if they happened to come in late. His gimmick ensured that audiences would never become distracted while simultaneously bringing audiences into the theaters in droves.

The opposite is true of William Castle’s gimmicks, which were often distracting to viewers and sometimes interrupted the natural flow of his films. His gimmick for Homicidal is a perfect example of this. At a key moment in the film, the film is stopped as a timer appears on the screen along with Castle’s voice:

“This is the fright break! You hear that sound? It’s the sound of a heartbeat… a frightened, terrified heart. Is it beating faster than your heart or slower? This heart is going to beat for another 25 seconds to allow anyone to leave this theater who is too frightened to see the end of the picture… Ten seconds more and we go into the house. It’s now or never! Five… Four… You’re a brave audience! Two… One.” –William Castle(Interruption at the end of Homicidal)

Fright Break Refund Ticket

This is a “Fright Break” Refund Ticket.

Fright Break

These are screenshots from William Castle’s “Fright Break.” Castle made the “cowards” wait for the film to end in a yellow booth called “coward’s corner” before being allowed to receive a refund.

It seems absurd in retrospect that Time magazine should criticize the shower scene in Psycho, calling it “one of the messiest, most nauseating murders ever filmed,” only to include Castle’s ham-handed replica in their top ten list. However, none of this should lead one to believe that Homicidal is a complete disaster. It is merely a missed opportunity.  The film’s first sequence is quite promising, and genre fans should certainly enjoy the campy murders. The fact that the ending of the film is unbelievably predictable isn’t even an issue, because the viewer is enjoying the ride (at least until the ridiculous fright break catapults them back to reality at the worst possible moment).

PSYCHO

Alfred Hitchcock’s marketing gimmick was born out of a desire to avoid audience distraction.

Actually, the gimmick for Mr. Sardonicus (which also received a 1961 release) was even more distracting. In this particular film, Castle actually appears onscreen and talks to the audience:

“That’s how the story ends, with the lovers living happily ever after. But has Mr. Sardonicus been punished enough, or don’t you agree with me that such a miserable scoundrel should be made to suffer and suffer and suffer? When you think what he did to his wife and to those girls… and about those leeches, I think ordinary punishment is too good for Mr. Sardonicus. If you feel that way too, if you want to show him no mercy and punish him as he deserves, then hold up your punishment poll ballot with the thumb pointing down like this. If, on the other hand, you’re one of those ‘I wouldn’t hurt a fly’ kind of people, one of those sweet, nice, kind, souls who would let Mr. Sardonicus go free, you should hold your ballot with the thumb pointing up like this. Now we’re ready for the voting: No mercy, or Mercy? Hold the ballots high please…” –William Castle (Interruption at the end of Mr. Sardonicus)

He then pretends to count votes before declaring “no mercy” as the winner, and the film continues. It is more than obvious that there is only one ending, so this particular gimmick isn’t even a real gimmick. It is a mere distraction, and it is too bad that it comes at the end of a reasonably engaging (albeit cheesy) monster flick.

Oskar Homolka in Mr. Sardonicus

Oskar Homolka (seen here in William Castle’s “Mr. Sardonicus”) had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE in 1936.

William Castle is probably known more for his gimmicks than he is for his filmmaking ability. He isn’t an incompetent director, but he never approached the level of artistry achieved by Alfred Hitchcock. However, his films can be quite fun for those in the right mood… Just don’t make the mistake of believing that anyone can “out-Hitchcock Hitchcock.” We’re looking at you, Brian De Palma.

Homicidal - One Sheet.jpg

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with attractive “double feature” artwork that features vintage one sheet poster for each film.

The menu is similar in its design and features the same one sheet art for both films.

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Both features are given equally fine image transfers that fall short of being great. Homicidal displays a rather thick layer of grain that adds to the filmic texture of the film without becoming uneven. Detail is rather good and showcase fabric textures and set definition quite nicely. Contrast is also quite nice and features solid black levels and shadow depth. The same can be said of Mr. Sardonicus, but it must be mentioned that the skin textures sometimes appear somewhat artificial during this particular feature.

Sound Quality:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

One doubts if the sound for these films was ever anything to brag about, and Mill Creek Entertainment’s sound transfers are a lifeless reflection of each film’s bargain basement roots. The largest problem that immediately comes to mind is the lack of a lossless audio transfer for both features. This issue becomes especially annoying when it is teamed with the knowledge that Mill Creek Entertainment’s previous release of Mr. Sardonicus featured a lossless audio track. It is impossible for one not to question their reasoning behind the downgrade.

The sound itself is about what one might expect from a transfer of a low budget film from the early 1960s. Both films suffer from the same audial maladies with the music and sound effects being banished to the center speakers. Clarity and range suffers somewhat throughout each film, but this isn’t particularly surprising. The dialogue is always clearly and evenly rendered, and what else can one expect from a bargain budget Blu-ray release of a bargain basement film production?

Special Features:

0 of 5 MacGuffins

There is no supplemental material included.

Mr. Sardonicus - One Sheet

Final Words:

William Castle’s gimmickry is the wart on the face of these two horror diversions. Mill Creek Entertainment’s Blu-ray transfer isn’t outstanding, but the disc does provide serviceable transfers of both films for fans to enjoy in their own living rooms.

Review by: Devon Powell

NOTE:

William Castle’s 13 Ghosts and 13 Frightened Girls has also been released on Blu-ray by Mill Creek Entertainment with comparable image and sound transfers.

Blu-ray Cover 2

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.

Screenshot 2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

menu1

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

Screenshot 3.jpg

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

Screenshot 4.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

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

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

Screenshot 5.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

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

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

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

Screenshot 6

Final Words:

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

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

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

Bridge.jpg

Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

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

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

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

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

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