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

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: October 01, 2019

Region: Region A

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

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

Saboteur

Shadow of a Doubt

Rope

Rear Window

The Trouble with Harry

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Psycho

The Birds

Marnie

Torn Curtain

Topaz

Frenzy

Family Plot

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

The Best of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents

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

Revenge (Season 1, Episode 1)

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

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

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

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

Lamb to the Slaughter (Season 3, Episode 28)

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

Poison (Season 4, Episode 1)

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

Arthur (Season 5, Episode 1)

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

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

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

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

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

Special Features:

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

The Best of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

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

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

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

Three Wives Too Many (Season 2, Episode 12)

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

Death Scene (Season 3, Episode 20)

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

Special Features:

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

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

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

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

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

HOH Contents

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: Murder!

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Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length: 01:42:29

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1554 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 31.93 Mbps

Notes: This marks this title’s North American Blu-ray debut.

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Murder! was the first important ‘who-done-it’ picture I made.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Murder! is one in a series of films following Blackmail (1929) and proceeding The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) that are, in all honesty, very difficult to enjoy as entertainments. I’m sure that this statement will be met with a certain amount of derision and perhaps a bit of anger, but it seems reasonably obvious that the director was experiencing a creative dry spell that wasn’t entirely of his own making.

For one thing, the early sound era produced a great many films that make for very difficult viewing today due the limitations of recorded sound and the fact that sound production completely changed the way that films were shot. The industry struggled to overcome the challenges created by the new format as cameras had to be isolated in small “telephone-booth-like kiosks” which made movement extremely difficult, and actors remained stationary so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Visual aesthetics were suddenly not the primary priority, and the result of this change could be incredibly awkward (to say the least).

This would have been frustrating enough for Hitchcock, but British International Pictures often handed him properties that held little to no interest for him instead of allowing him to choose his own projects. In other words, most of these films were “assignments.” Blackmail and Rich and Strange (1931) seem to be exceptions, but it isn’t clear whether Murder! was the result of yet another assignment, if he chose to make it from a list of inappropriate BIP properties, or if this was his own idea. Whatever the case, it is worth noting that the director often made it a point to stress in interviews that he preferred suspense stories to mysteries and that these two genres are actually antithetical to one another:

“There’s a great confusion between the words ‘mystery’ and ‘suspense.’ And the two things are absolutely miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process—like in a ‘who-done-it’—but suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information… I’ve only made one ‘who-done-it’ many, many years ago because in the course—before you arrive at that five second revelation—there’s no emotion going on… So, the mystery has no particular appeal for me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

The mystery that he mentions making “many, many years ago” is obviously Murder!, and it is important to remember that this film was made before the director had latched onto the fact that he was at his best when working within the fairly diverse genre of the suspense thriller. This revelation wouldn’t come until the back-to-back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. In other words, Murder!—which is a who-done-it based on a novel by Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane (aka Winifred Ashton) entitled “Enter Sir John”—may have actually helped the director to understand his preferences for suspense over mystery. What’s more, evidence suggests that if the director didn’t choose this property as a potential film project, he was certainly excited and inspired by this particular “assignment.”

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This is a dust jacket for “Enter Sir John.” It is worth noting Helen Simpson would work briefly with Hitchcock on Sabotage, and wrote a novel entitled Under Capricorn that the director would later adapt as one of his more unsuccessful films.

REDEVELOPING ‘THE HITCHCOCK TOUCH’

Alfred Hitchcock worked primarily with Walter C. Mycroft on the adaptation and the incredible Alma Reville on the scenario. The three Hitchcocks borrowed an overwhelming amount of the film’s dialogue from the novel itself, but the director didn’t allow the addition of sound to obstruct his ability to render scenes cinematically. Instead, he preferred to utilize the new medium to build upon his already developing cinematic voice.

“The talkies have given most of us a past about which we need to be ashamed. Why, we used to bore a hole in an actor’s head and superimpose tiny images representing his thoughts! Sound has done away with such clumsiness. I am thinking of a sequence from Enter Sir John. A murder has been committed. There is a shot of the curious outside the villa in which the body was found; a picture with a Fleet Street look. Then, a cut to the notice-board in the greenroom of the local theatre; attention being focused on the fact that an understudy is playing. After that, a glimpse of the curtain rising: immediately followed by a close up of the grille opening into the cell of the condemned actress. The camera holds her face, but the voices in the theatre talk about the understudy. The woman’s eyes just respond to the comments and her thoughts are pretty plain.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

In other words, Hitchcock applies cinema’s visual principals to sound. He uses sound in the same manner that he uses his camera (just as he had done previously in Blackmail). One particularly interesting scene concerned a jury deliberation as Sir John tries to explain his “not guilty” verdict to the eleven jurors who disagree.

“…The jury scene turns expressionistic when Sir John’s arguments against the other jurors are beaten back with increasingly loud, increasingly quick replies: ‘Any answer to that, Sir John?’ Finally, he is overwhelmed by their choral ‘Any answer, any answer, any answer to that, Sir John?’ The veer from dialogue to chant puts the audience into Sir John’s beleaguered position.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Hitchcock’s unique editing rhythm mirrors their chanting, but their words become little more than a distorted symphony of voices as Hitchcock moves into an extreme close-up of our anxiety ridden protagonist’s face. The result is a bit crude due to the aforementioned production limitations, but the scene does find the director experimenting with the cinematic possibilities that sound would offer him.

The moments that follow this exchange are just as interesting. After a despondent Sir John relents and agrees to a guilty verdict, he sits motionless in his chair as the other jurors gather their belongings and leave the room. He begins gathering his things only when the final jurors are making their exit. He finally leaves us alone in the empty room. However, an attendant soon enters the room and begins to clean up as we hear the verdict read to the court and a sentence of death passed down. This is something that couldn’t have been done in a silent film, and it seems slightly audacious even today.

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“I tried to stylize a jury persuading a final juryman to agree to the verdict of guilty, and I stylized the voices hammering away at him.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

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Sir John sits despondently as the other Jurors happily file out of the room.

The scene that follows the fade out from this scene is probably the film’s most recognizable, as it is often discussed for its creative (and difficult to achieve) use of sound. Blackmail had the so-called “knife scene,” and Murder! has the infamous “mirror monologue.”

“Most people remember the picture by one particular scene—the one in which Marshall spoke his own thoughts without opening his mouth. The same idea was used more extensively some time later in Strange Interlude. It was considered a somewhat startling talkie innovation. Actually, the idea was one of the prominent methods of stage technique handed down from Shakespeare. Then it went out of fashion. Nowadays, a second actor is brought on so that the actor can speak his lines to him. I have always hated the idea of bringing in an unnecessary person, and this is why I set out to find some way of avoiding it when I had to direct that scene in Murder! I merely went back to the oldest form of all and introduced the soliloquy, brought up to date by making it unnecessary for Marshall to open his mouth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

This effect was more difficult to achieve at that time than it is today, and Hitchcock would discuss this scene in interviews until the end of his career.

“…[Marshall] had [just turned] the radio on, and I wanted to have the Prelude from ‘Tristan [and Isolde]’ playing. I had a thirty-piece orchestra in the studio, just for this little radio he’s playing in his bathroom. You see, you couldn’t add it later, it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

To complicate matters further, a recording of Sir John’s internal soliloquy also had to be played off-screen, and this recording had to be timed to the orchestra’s music! One can only imagine the madness that this probably created on the set, but the coming of talkies often created such chaos. Filmmakers who refused to build upon their already well established stylistic techniques would fail to make an impact in the sound era. Those, like Hitchcock, who became excited at the opportunity to build upon these already established techniques would flourish. However, even these directors would stumble on occasion. The “talkie” era made it necessary for directors to experiment, and these experiments weren’t always successful.

This was certainly true of Alfred Hitchcock, and one particular experimental approach during the production of Murder! helped him to establish some of his more steadfast directorial rules.

“I also experimented with improvisations in direct sound. I would explain the meaning of the scene to the actors and suggest that they make up their own dialogue. The result wasn’t good; there was too much faltering. They would carefully think over what they were about to say and we didn’t get the spontaneity I had hoped for. The timing was all wrong and it had no rhythm.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The failure of this technique helped to solidify his preference to “improvise in the office” while working on the script. The final film shows signs of this failed approach and adds to the clunkiness of the final product.

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“[Murder!] was Herbert Marshall’s first talkie, and the part he played was ideal for him. He immediately proved himself a natural talkie actor.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Abel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Alfred Abel was cast in a Hitchcock-directed German version entitled Mary. His most famous screen performance was probably his portrayal of Joh Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

A BILINGUAL PRODUCTION

Most of what is known about the production of Murder! concerns its status as a so-called “bilingual production.”

“Since it took more time to make a picture, they were often made in several versions in order to reach an international audience. Therefore each film was much more expensive.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The practice was short-lived but crossed continents. There are multiple versions of a great many films made during these early days of sound. There are foreign-language versions of Dracula, The Blue Angel, M, and a great many other titles from this era. However, different directors usually took the reins of the foreign version (although the same sets were usually used). This wasn’t the case with Murder!. British International Pictures trusted Hitchcock to shoot both of these versions.

“We made the German and English versions simultaneously. I had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language—just enough to get by. In the English version the hero was Herbert Marshall, and we used a very well-known actor, Alfred Abel, for the German version. Before the shooting, when I went to Berlin to talk over the script, they proposed many changes that I turned down. As it happens, I was wrong. I refused them because I was satisfied with the English version. Besides, we didn’t want to shoot two versions that would be too different from each other for reasons of economy.

Anyway, I returned to London without having altered the script. But as soon as we started to shoot, I realized that I had no ear for the German language. Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all amusing in the German one, as, for instance, the ironic asides on the loss of dignity or on snobbishness. The German actors were ill at ease, and I came to realize that I simply didn’t know about the German idiom.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The script was translated into German by Georg C. Klaren and Herbert Juttke, and a handful of changes were made to the story during this process. Most noticeably, the title was changed to Mary (as Diana Baring’s name was changed to ‘Mary Baring’). In addition, Fane’s motives were completely different in the German film. Instead of trying to hide his racial origins, the murderer is trying to conceal the fact that he is a fugitive from justice. However, the production was conceived as a close replica of Murder!

“It was designed technically that I would set up and light a scene with the English cast, [then] take them out, substitute the other actors and do the scene over again in German.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Transcription of François Truffaut’s Interview, August 1962)

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It is clear that the two films mirror one another, but this comparison probably doesn’t give us an accurate account of the differences in framing since home video transfers often crop images for various reasons. (These examples are taken from Sony’s 2007 DVD transfer of Murder! and a 2006 French DVD transfer of Mary.)

This methodology creates a film that mirrors Hitchcock’s British version more often than not, but it didn’t completely eradicate the insanity created by shooting two films at the same time. Charles Landstone—who portrayed one of the jurors in Mary—remembered the chaos created by the bilingual shoot and reminisced about his experiences in his memoir. Apparently, the prospect of interpreting another a role being portrayed by another actor at the same time made Landstone apprehensive. However, he managed to find a solution for this unique predicament:

“…Each man had to give his views—Norah Baring was being tried on a murder charge—and Hitchcock had the idea of planting each juryman with a solo shot that displayed his personality. The Englishman in my part was Kenneth Cove, quite a well-known feature actor of the day and a member of the famous Aldwych farce team. I watched him carefully as he went on the set, and thought that if I could copy him I might get through without being sacked as some of the others had been. I saw Hitchcock give me a knowing grin; he hadn’t been fooled, but he didn’t care. For the twelve days that the shooting of the jury scene lasted I followed the same procedure, carefully aping everything that cove did. Nobody seemed to notice, not even Cove.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

It isn’t surprising to learn of Alfred Hitchcock’s tendency to exploit the unusual “bilingual” situation for laughs (or for his own private amusement).

“He had a clapper boy named Harold, and he cast him in the role of the King’s Jester. His cry would be ‘Haro-old!,’ and when Harold dutifully came to heel he would be sent off on one fool’s errand after the other. He made ‘Haro-old’ learn off by heart a sentence in German which he told him to go and repeat to a young actress who was Norah Baring’s counterpart. I forget what it was exactly, but it was the sort of remark that one might expect in the most permissive of today’s scripts. In 1930 it was outrageous. ‘Haro-old’ dutifully repeated it; the girl was startled out of her life and ‘Haro-old’ stammered: ‘E told me to say it.’ The actress, catching sight of Hitchcock roaring his head off, wagged her finger at him in admonition.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

However, most of the director’s pranks seemed to be directed at the very difficult Alfred Abel:

“[Hitchcock] transparently disliked Alfred Abel, a stuffy man who didn’t share his sense of humor, Abel refused, for example, to wear the same tweeds-and-raincoat costume as the English star, Herbert Marshall, because it didn’t suit his idea of formality. And he refused to follow Hitchcock’s directions for the scene where a landlady’s children climb over Sir John, who is trying to relax in bed while sipping his morning cup of tea. It is a memorable interlude in Murder! (experimenting with overlapping sound, Hitchcock has a baby bawling throughout), but it had to be restaged for Abel and [Mary]…

…Abel finally stepped into the crosshairs when he objected to Marshall’s special lounge chair. No such privilege had been accorded to the German lead. ‘Hitchcock didn’t trouble to explain,’ wrote Landstone, ‘that Marshall was a 1914-18 war casualty and had a wooden leg, but simply said that provision would be made for the German to rest between the shots… and after lunch a magnificent-looking armchair, far more luxurious than Marshall’s, appeared at the side of the set. On it was Abel’s name, and the latter thanked Hitchcock profusely. Noticing, however, the director’s puckish grin, the German went over to the chair and touched it gingerly with his finger, whereupon the whole contraption collapsed to the ground. Hitchcock’s roar of laughter filled the studio.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) during the production of MURDER! and MARY..jpg

This is a ‘behind the scenes’ photograph of Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) on the set of Murder! and Mary.

RELEASE AND RECEPTION

“It was an interesting film and was quite successful in London, but it was too sophisticated for the provinces.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The evidence suggests that Hitchcock’s above recollection as to the reception of this film is accurate. While the German Mary only received a limited release in Germany, the British Murder! did quite well upon its release (especially in terms of critical opinion). British critics were especially kind and fast to compare the film favorably with American product. The following review from ‘The Yorkshire Post’ is a case in point:

“…This adaptation of “Enter Sir John,” the novel by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, also deals with crime, but the film leaves you with a convincing impression of real people involved in quite possible situations… There may be melodramatic moments in the film version, but there is no rosy haze and no sham sentiment.

Mr. Hitchcock long ago proved himself the most gifted of British directors, and Blackmail showed that he could handle a talkie every bit as well as a silent picture. Murder! (I prefer the original title of the novel) is much longer and fuller than Blackmail, but no less brilliant. Once more we can enjoy Mr. Hitchcock’s remarkable gift for making every scene and every glimpse say something. His camera is as resourceful as in the days of silence. That feeling which the talkie used to give us of being anchored in a narrow room is entirely overcome.

Sometimes, I think, he pauses too long over details—particularly over his satirical touches. The scene in which the needy stage-manager and his wife go to lunch at Sir John’s West End apartment is extremely amusing, but the amount of footage given to it holds up the action. Still, Mr. Hitchcock’s eye for idiosyncrasies of character and his command over so many levels of English life are a great asset. Murder! is a long film, but so richly packed with material that not for a moment did I find it dull.

The acting is on a level with the direction. Herbert Marshall—a new recruit from the stage — has exactly the right urbanity for Sir John; Edward Chapman is first-rate as the little stage-manager; Edward Percy—another stage recruit—is equally effective as a trapeze artist; and Miss Norah Baring, in her short but difficult part as the suspected girl…

Nor is there any weakness in the production or in the settings. Here we have a home-made film which attempts to do no more than tell a mystery story, but which does its job with complete success. Indeed, the wealth of vitality displayed in the handling of this British picture makes the American efficiency of ‘Raffles’ seem oddly stereotyped, oddly thin.” —Yorkshire Post (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, August 05, 1930)

Hugh Castle, who wrote a condescending but mostly positive piece on Blackmail upon that film’s release, did likewise upon the release of this film. In fact, it is obvious that he prefers Murder! to the director’s “talkie” debut:

“…Hitchcock by now must be an admitted authority on the black arts, having graduated with Blackmail. Hitchcock, of course, is an interesting phenomenon, said he, adopting the quietly introspective style. A rambler rose on an arctic slope. Or perhaps it would be better to say a walrus on Everest. He has his moments. He is the one man in this country who can think cinema. He may never achieve half of what he thinks. One cannot expect too much of the British industry… But Hitchcock’s moments justify themselves. Obviously Murder! had its moments. It may not achieve real unity, but it comes nearer than any of its homemade competitors. And after Two Worlds!

There is a suggestion in Murder! of a talk-film idea which personally has appealed to me from the start of the dialogue film. Too much, in my opinion, is made of the deliberate distortion of sound to make a counterpoint to the visual rhythm. For myself, I have always been interested in the direct linking of sound and picture by the employment of a literary translation in the dialogue of a similar rhythm as is used in the montage… In the jury sequence in Murder! Hitchcock has discovered this same idea. The acceleration of cutting, coupled with the dialogue rhythm, speeding up, speeding up. Speech montage. So much more fundamental than that psychologically interesting ‘knife’ episode in Blackmail.

Much could be said about Hitchcock, his use of the detached camera. Documentation. His efforts to weld literary satire into cinematic development, the old fault for which Lubitsch has to answer. His idea-fertility, the use of dialogue as a thought-medium [in Murder!]—a throwback to the Elizabethan stage, this.

Anyway, Hitchcock gives the screen ideas, in which it is so bankrupt. Murder! has several ideas, flung off, used to serve a purpose and then forgotten. Regarded as a motion picture Murder! is a praiseworthy effort, quite the best thing this country has done. Looked at from the straightforward angle of the film-goer it gets dangerously near the highbrow, which means to say that the fact it has brains may militate against it…” —Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

The review published in ‘The Times’ offers more thoughtful praise but forgoes Castle’s particular brand of snobbery. After praising Marshall’s performance in the film, the review elaborates on Hitchcock’s direction:

“…We find ourselves thrust into a world at once made passionately aware of itself, and Mr. Hitchcock has never been more skillful in revealing the inner lives of his characters and the strangeness of the scene that enfolds them. Murder!, then, is not simply a brilliant exercise in mystery melodrama. Like most of Mr. Hitchcock’s work, it tells us about the life as well as the lives of his characters, and we cannot follow him into Sir John’s study or into the actress’s lodgings without knowing more of the world about us than we did before. In short, Mr. Hitchcock’s method is that of the creative artist. He has produced a picture of which any country might be proud, and has shown that when so minded we can make films superior in intelligence and style to any submitted to us by America or Germany.” —The Times (September 23, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes offered the film plenty of qualified approbation and also predicted a successful future in film for Herbert Marshall:

“Probably the best of the pictures recently produced in Great Britain, this boasts a strong story, capably acted by a fine cast. Top honors go to Herbert Marshall, a good looking and capable hero, who solves the murder mystery. The picture has the fault common to many British films of too much dialogue and lack of action, but good direction surmounts this obstacle and the suspense is sustained throughout…

… There are no names of American prominence in the cast, but Marshall should be played up, as he is a good potential bet. This looks like a good offering for the weekly changes, as well as subsequents [sic]. The title should give it draw.” —Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Even American trade publications offered the film their blessings as this review by Charles S. Aaronson illustrates:

“This British International film, adapted most expertly by Alma Reville from Clemence Dane’s stage play, ‘Enter Sir John,’ is as good a mystery thrill picture as they come. As seems to be the usual thing with the product of the Elstree studios in England, the cast is exceptionally fine, from the lead of Herbert Marshall as Sir John, actor and amateur detective, down to the most incidental part. Marshall gives an excellent exhibition of self confidence in his role, and handles his lines with a restraint and perfection of diction which is seldom bettered on the talking screen…

…The manner in which Sir John traps the suspect into betraying his guilt, and the odd way in which the murderer beats the law in the end provide an unusual conclusion and put real punch into a mystery thriller which is novel for its new angle. The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is all that anyone could ask. Every motion and speech is pointed toward the climax, with little or no time wasted on unnecessary incidentals. Photography is good throughout, with several scenes easily rating a grade better than good…

…An able cast, and fine adaptation and direction of a story which has at least one or two unusual twists for this type of mystery, make this film one of the most entertaining British International has sent over. There can be little doubt that American audiences will get a real kick out of it.” —Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

The film’s successful reception is understandable, and it is the highlight of a decidedly uneven period in Alfred Hitchcock’s career (1930 – 1933 / Juno and the PaycockWaltzes from Vienna). If it has aged more than some of his later films, one can take solace in the understanding that it is on par with other “talkies” made during this era.

Murder! SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses their disc in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from a Columbia Pictures window card design that was used to promote Murder! in US theaters. It’s probably the most famous available artwork for the film, so their decision to use it was wise.

Murder! Menu

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and the result is both attractive and easy to navigate.

Murder! SS02 - BLOOPER

Those who enjoy finding mistakes will notice that equipment is visible in this particular shot. It seems likely that this error would have been cropped out of release prints.

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino has given Murder! a very healthy high definition transfer that blows previous DVD transfers of the film out of the water. As for the previous standard definition “public domain” transfers, there is absolutely no comparison as those were washed out, blown out, cropped to the point of ruin, and barely watchable. Those who have only seen one of these transfers haven’t actually seen the film. Kino’s Blu-ray transfer is also a step up when one compares it to Sony’s previous DVD edition of the film (which is the only legitimate release of Murder! in North America).

First of all, we see more information on all four sides of the frame when comparing it to the Sony release. Density isn’t always as strong as one might hope during a few scenes, but it is better than it has ever been in the past. Fine detail and clarity have also seen a significant improvement here, while the filmic layer of grain is healthier and better resolved. It’s true that there are occasional signs of damage, but none of these become at all distracting. In fact, it is surprising how clean the print looks considering the film’s age. There are a few instances of the film momentarily fading to black and then back into the scene that must be the result of age. It is a minor weakness that probably couldn’t be improved upon without significant restoration work being done on this title.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is important to consider the “early sound” nature of this track before criticizing the inherent weaknesses on display. These weaknesses were always on display! Kino’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio reproduces the film’s original mono accurately, and those who have only experienced those dreadful “public domain” transfers will be amazed at how clean and clear the track sounds when compared to those earlier releases. Dialogue is clear and usually intelligible. The weakest element is obviously the music as it is a bit boxed in and suffers slightly from the limitations of the era’s sound technology. However, even this has seen improvement when compared to earlier DVD releases of the film. It represents the original sound elements faithfully.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Mary (1931) – (SD Up-Res) – (01:22:07)

Mary Title Card

If Mary had been presented in high definition, it wouldn’t be discussed here as one of the disc’s supplemental offerings. It would have been one of two main attractions. The article that proceeds this disc review discusses the production of Mary, and cinephiles should agree that it is a substantial addition to the disc (even in standard definition). The film hasn’t received a legitimate North American release in any format, so Kino Lorber should be applauded for their efforts.

Audio Commentary by Nick Pinkerton

Pinkerton gives a well-researched but monotonous commentary that mixes analytical theory with biographical information and production history. The major weakness here is his delivery, and this is a shame because it is an informative track.

Alternate Ending – (10:06)

Alternate Ending

Apparently, the official UK cut of the film was slightly shorter than the version projected for US audiences. The latter of these versions inserts a pair of incidental scenes into the film’s ending in order to make certain points more clearly.

The first of these scenes follows directly after Handel Fane’s dramatic demise. We see his corpse being carried out on a stretcher as Sir John is handed a note that Fane had left behind for him. After looking at the note for a moment, he exits the dead performer’s dressing room. This, of course, leads into a scene that is actually in the official UK cut (the scene where Sir John reads the note out loud).

This scene is then followed by another added scene wherein we see the innocent Nora Baring as she exits the prison to ride off with Sir John. He tells her to save her tears since they will serve her well in his new play. This is the cue for the next (and final) scene in both cuts of the film. Sir John kisses Diana’s hand before tracking out to reveal that this is part of a stage performance. The curtain drops. The End.

In some ways, this US ending (which was included as the primary ending on the Madacy Entertainment DVD) is much smoother and less choppy than the official UK ending, but it also anticipates the final gag of pulling out from what we think is the clichéd “happy ending” kiss. It’s nice to have both endings on the disc, but one actually wishes that Kino Lorber had offered an option for viewers to watch the film with either ending.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon interviews Icon – (14:19)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Murder! and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills. The only complaint that we have about this is that one of the photos is clearly from the production of Blackmail and not Murder! The oversight takes some of the polish off of the presentation.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (05:12)

Noël Simsolo’s French-language introduction is an odd and not altogether worthy inclusion as his information isn’t completely accurate and his theories aren’t entirely sound. First of all, it is clear when one examines Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography that he didn’t really latch onto the thriller genre until the back to back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much. What’s more, Mary wasn’t shot after Murder! as he suggests. These films were shot simultaneously.

One doesn’t like to disagree with popular theories as to thematic subtext, but his adoption of Truffaut’s assessment that the film delves into the subject of homosexuality is questionable. Such subtext does crop up throughout Hitchcock’s work but Murder! is a different animal. In ‘Hitchcock’s British Films,’ Maurice Yacowar makes an argument against such readings:

“Ernest Betts makes an extreme claim: ‘More interesting than any technical gimmicks is Hitchcock’s awareness of dissolving ethical standards, of the whole atmosphere of moral and psychological change. He confronts homosexual and other issues in a manner considered bold at the time.’ Durgnat rewrites the film: ‘It leaves us, sophisticates of 1970, in little doubt that “half cast” means “left handed,” which means bisexual or homosexual.’ To Truffaut Murder! ‘in essence is a thinly disguised story about homosexuality.’ The film is neither ‘about’ nor does it ‘confront’ homosexuality. Well, if it is, it is more than ‘thinly disguised.’

…The ‘half caste’ need not denote homosexuality. Nor does transvestitism, given the British farce tradition of male performers in drag…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Yacowar should have gone farther with his argument, because performing in drag isn’t transvestitism. The performing artist isn’t dressing for his own pleasure but for the pleasure and amusement of an audience. This distinction is important.

In the end, one doesn’t mind Simsolo offering his theoretical interpretation of the film, but the factual errors and assumptions (presented as fact) are regrettable.

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)
Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)
The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailer – (01:43)
Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)
Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

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

Murder! SS05

Final Words:

Murder! is arguably the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s early (post-Blackmail and pre-The Man Who Knew Too Much) “talkies,” but his best work was still ahead of him. It is fascinating to see how Hitchcock experimented with the new sound medium. However, those who are only casually interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre may find it a challenging entertainment due to the technical limitations that plagued the early sound era.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a remarkable release, and it is certainly recommended for devotees of the director.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Material:

Staff Writer (‘Murder’ at Regal and Alhambra, Burnley Express, May 23, 1931)

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

Staff Writer (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, Yorkshire Post, August 05, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

Staff Writer (Murder, The Times, September 23, 1930)

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

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

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

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

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

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

Ken Mogg (Melancholy Elephants: Hitchcock and Ingenious Adaptation, Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Gaslight

Gaslight Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Warner Archives

Release Date: June 25, 2019

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:53:46

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.99 Mbps

Gaslight Title.jpg

George Cukor’s Gaslight has long drawn comparisons to certain films in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography and is often mentioned as one of “the best Hitchcock films that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t actually direct.” Of course, this isn’t at all fair to Cukor, but there are a number of factors that tend to encourage such comparison. The most important and interesting of these is the fact that the original play was written by Patrick Hamilton. Readers will recall that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was also adapted from a successful stage play written by Hamilton. What’s more, the theme of marital paranoia was touched upon by Hitchcock in Rebecca, Suspicion, and Notorious. Finally, seeing Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound, Notorious, Under Capricorn), Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt, Under Capricorn), and Dame May Whitty (The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion) in such a thriller is bound to remind viewers of their work for Hitchcock. In fact, a train scene between Bergman’s ‘Paula’ and Whitty’s ‘Miss Thwaites’ is so obviously “Hitchcockian” that it seems unlikely that the similarities aren’t intentional:

Miss Thwaites: Oh, my goodness! Good gracious! It’s so exciting.

Paula: Your book?

Miss Thwaites: Yes. It’s about a girl who marries a man—and what do you think? He’s got six wives buried in the cellar!

Paula: That seems a lot.

Miss Thwaites: Yes, and I’m only on Page 200, so I’m sure there’s still more to come. It’s a wonderful book!

Paula: It sounds a little gruesome.

Miss Thwaites: Yes. I’m afraid I enjoy a good murder now and then. My brother always calls me “Bloodthirsty Bessie.” Have a biscuit, dear.

Paula: Thank you.

Miss Thwaites: Digestive biscuits. Unpleasant name, isn’t it? I always call them “diggy biscuits.” I never travel without them.

Gaslight Oscar.png

Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award in the “Best Actress” category for her performance in Gaslight. The film earned a total of seven nominations.

It is also worth noting that Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn would feature Ingrid Bergman as a character being “gaslighted” by her jealous housekeeper. The film wasn’t one of the director’s more successful efforts, but it seems likely that this fact contributes to people’s tendency to draw parallels between Cukor’s work on Gaslight and Hitchcock’s work in general.

In the end, however, it seems inappropriate to put too much emphasis on any of these points. George Cukor’s great work on the film should not be overshadowed by comparisons to a director who had absolutely nothing to do with the production. Instead, we should celebrate the existence of a film that is good enough to stand amongst Hitchcock’s work as a classic of the genre.

Gaslight SS01.jpg

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Archives houses their disc in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring a slightly altered version of the film’s original one sheet design. The cast credits are much smaller and are arranged in a more traditional manner that takes up less space, and the title has been moved so that it is located directly under these names. Whether these changes make for a stronger composition is a matter of taste, but it is nice to see that the original artwork was at least used here.

Gaslight - One Sheet

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

Gaslight SS02.jpg

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This exquisite transfer is sourced from a recent 4K scan of the film (which must have been in excellent condition). It is stunningly representative of the film’s original elements and features consistently impressive fine detail for a film of this vintage. An extremely healthy layer of grain lends the image a filmic texture without ever becoming unwieldy or problematic. Contrast is well handled here with strong blacks and healthy whites. The high bitrate ensures that compression issues are never a problem. Age related damage is minimal and never distracting. There really aren’t any problems to discuss here. Everything looks terrific.

Gaslight SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track showcases the film’s original mono mix rather admirably. All elements are well prioritized and probably sound as good as they ever have. Dialogue is consistently clear, music is given more room to breathe than in previous DVD editions of the film, dynamic range is much better than one might expect, age related anomalies such as hiss and hum are never an issue, and there aren’t any noticeable synch problems. Audiophiles should be reasonably pleased.

Gaslight SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Gaslight: The Original 1940 British Version — (01:23:57)

Gaslight 1940

Upon purchasing the re-make rights to this film, MGM had included a clause in their contract which demanded that all existing prints of this film be destroyed. They even tried to destroy the negative. Luckily, they didn’t succeed.

This earlier adaptation of Hamilton’s play was directed by Thorold Dickinson and stars Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook as the two principals (named ‘Bella’ and ‘Paul’ in this version). In many ways, this almost feels like a reader’s digest version of the story. The husband is very obviously characterized as a brute here, and his “Gaslighting” is already well underway by the time we are given a proper scene between them. It is a bit choppy compared to the more fluid progression of Cukor’s film version, but there are those who prefer this version to the re-make. These individuals will cite a darker and more suspenseful tone, but others are just as likely to note the script’s less subtle characterizations and performances that are nearly void of all nuance.

Either way, it is very nice to have this British adaptation included here as it is fun comparing the two films. It certainly adds enormously to the value of this disc. Unfortunately, this particular image transfer is presented in standard definition with 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. C’est la vie.

Reflections on Gaslight — (13:50)

Cinephiles will also be thrilled with the inclusion of this short “featurette” as it manages to pack some very interesting information into its short duration. Pia Lindstrom hosts, provides a bit of production history, and tells a few second-hand anecdotes. Angela Lansbury also appears to share her memories of the production. This is far from a comprehensive examination of the film’s production, but it certainly doesn’t waste the viewer’s time.

Oscars for Movie Stars — (01:32)

This newsreel footage from the 17th Annual Academy Awards ceremony includes contextual narration by John B. Kennedy as Gary Cooper presents the award for “Best Actor” to Bing Crosby, Jennifer Jones presents the “Best Actress” award to Ingrid Bergman, and Margaret O’Brien receives the Academy’s special juvenile award. The ‘thank you’ speeches were short and gracious in those days. Recent winners could watch this and take a few notes.

Theatrical Trailer — (01:53)

It’s nice to see how Gaslight was sold to audiences at the time. One wishes that all Blu-rays would include a film’s original theatrical trailer (or trailers).

Gaslight: Lux Radio Theater Broadcast — (59:40)

This Lux Radio Theater adaptation was originally broadcast to radio audiences on April 29, 1946 and features Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the same roles that they had brought to the screen only a few years earlier. The entire program is presented here—including commercials and scripted interviews with Bergman and Boyer.

Gaslight SS05.jpg

Final Words:

Gaslight is an engrossing thriller with an incredibly strong performance by Ingrid Bergman, and this Blu-ray from Warner Archives offers a terrific transfer that bests all previous home video releases.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Sisters – The Criterion Collection

Spine #89

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: October 23, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:32:42

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 34.71 Mbps

Notes: The Criterion Collection had previously released a DVD edition, but this is the film’s Blu-ray debut.

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WARNING: This article contains spoilers. We prefer not to discuss a film’s plot in intricate detail so that spoilers aren’t an issue, but it was necessary to compare very specific elements in Sisters to those found in Alfred Hitchcock’s work. We apologize in advance.

De Palma 1973

Brian De Palma in 1973

“I have found that people who like and are knowledgeable about Hitchcock also like Sisters—they know the references I am making to his films and they seem to appreciate it all the more for that. Which is good, because you could so easily be attacked as a tawdry Hitchcock rip-off.” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

After several decades worth of hindsight, it seems more accurate to say that those who are truly knowledgeable about Alfred Hitchcock are much more likely to find fault in the film homages of Brian De Palma—not because he is using ideas and themes popularized by a much better filmmaker, but because he doesn’t seem to understand how and why Hitchcock’s technique for creating suspense in his audiences actually works. In fact, these borrowed techniques are often rendered less effective when used alongside De Palma’s own stylistic flourishes.

Sisters is the film that began this particular pattern of filmmaking for Brian De Palma, and it may very well be the homage that works the best on its own terms. This is probably due to the fact that he wasn’t attempting to set himself up as the next Hitchcock when he started the project. In a 1973 interview, De Palma clarified his intentions: “Basically, I wanted to make a movie in the Hitchcock mode in order to work out my own problems as a storyteller. It was also a study in the realization of precise visualization.” He was also attempting to make a film that could capture a wide enough audience to make a decent profit at the box-office after the epic failure of Get to Know Your Rabbit. This meant turning his attention towards exploitable subject matter and learning how to plan his scenes visually.

“I was at Columbia in the late ’50s and early ’60s, terrified of being drafted. So I made movies about not wanting to go to Vietnam—very much the politics of the day. And then I decided I wanted to start learning how to tell stories with pictures. So, of course, Hitchcock is the great master of that, and I saw a lot of his movies and began to use some of his story ideas and techniques in order to learn how to do that.” –Brian De Palma (NPR, July 01, 2016)

Borrowing heavily from Psycho, Rear Window, and even Rope, the film tells a sordid story about a gorgeous model named Danielle (Margot Kidder) who has a secret: she was once a conjoined twin and was recently surgically separated from her sister, Dominique (also Margot Kidder). This particular story element was actually based on a very real set of Siamese twins:

“I got the idea from a picture in ‘Life‘ magazine. They had these Russian Siamese twin sisters called Masha and Dasha as they’re sitting together on a couch—one looking kind of gay and happy and the other sort of slumped over to the side looking completely psychopathic. And the caption was ‘although they’re physiologically perfectly normal, as they develop into adolescence, they’re developing certain mental problems.” –Brian De Palma (De Palma, 2015)

Masha and Dasha-Rare Study of Russia's Siamese Twins-Life April 8, 1966

This is the photograph of Masha and Dasha (at age 11) that gave Brian De Palma his inspiration for Sisters (1973). It appeared along with a photo essay entitled “Rare Study of Russia’s Siamese Twins,”  which appeared in the April 8, 1966 issue of Life. The caption actually read: “When they were younger, they enjoyed special attention. As they matured, they came to comprehend the full meaning of their deformity. Doctors now predict they will need psychiatric help.

The first act of Sisters is an obvious nod to the structure of Psycho as it introduces a character as the film’s protagonist only to kill him off at the end of the first act. In this instance, the protagonist is Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson). We first see Phillip as the unwitting guest on a hidden camera show called ‘Peeping Toms.’ (Some critics suggest that this may be a homage to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, but those familiar with De Palma’s earlier films understand that voyeurism had long been a staple of his work—especially in Greetings and Hi, Mom!. It is also a theme that is omnipresent throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work.

The aforementioned model, Danielle, has been hired to portray a blind woman in Phillip’s locker room who begins undressing (seemly unaware of his presence) as the show’s contestants make guesses as to whether he will be a gentleman and leave or if he will simply gawk at the attractive woman undressing before his eyes. He does the right thing and is given a dinner for two at a cheesy restaurant called “The African Room.” One might assume that Danielle was paid for her participation, but this is apparently not the case since she is given a set of cutlery. In any case, Danielle asks Phillip if he wouldn’t mind taking her as his date to “The African Room” and they take a fast liking to one another.

Unfortunately, their enjoyment of the evening is soon hindered by a strange looking gentleman named Emil Breton (William Finley) who seems to be stalking Danielle. We first see him in the studio audience at the game show, he confronts her as she dines with Phillip at “The African Room,” and he follows them back to Danielle’s apartment. It turns out that the gentleman stalker is actually Danielle’s ex-husband. After temporarily getting rid of Emil, Phillip and Danielle make love as the camera reveals a rather large scar on her hip.

Morning soon comes and Phillip is awakened by the sound of Danielle arguing with an unknown woman in another room. The argument is in French and therefore inscrutable to Phillip. However, he is soon told what the audience has already inferred from their subtitled argument: the other woman is Dominique, Danielle’s unstable twin sister who is visiting her on their birthday. It seems that she is jealous of Phillip’s presence in the apartment. He offers to leave them alone so that they can enjoy their day together, but Danielle prefers that he stay with her. She does, however, ask him to go and pick up some medication for her. He does this and also stops at a bakery to buy Danielle and Dominique a personalized birthday cake. Meanwhile, Danielle is in a great deal of pain and in desperate need of her medication.

Phillip returns and it seems that she has passed out on the sleeper sofa—but the woman asleep on the sofa isn’t Danielle. It will suffice to say that Dominique doesn’t seem to care much for birthday cake, because Phillip is stabbed to death for his efforts. The structural similarities between Sisters and Psycho are obvious: Phillip Woode is the Marion Crane of Sisters. De Palma has made it a point to discuss this similarity in interviews, bragging that “there are a great many structural elements here that are in all [of] Hitchcock’s movies: introducing a character and then having him killed off early in the film, switching points of view, taking the person who sees the murder and then having him solve the crime.” He isn’t quite right in stating that this was a structural feature of all Hitchcock films. After all, the master really only dispatched what the audience assumed was the film’s protagonist in Psycho, but De Palma is right to give credit where credit is due. (One might argue that Hitchcock also killed off one of his primary characters two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, but it should become clear why this isn’t technically the case if they give it any serious thought.)

Phillip desperately crawls to a window where he writes “help” in his own blood. This is seen by Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), a struggling reporter living in an apartment across the way. This is one of several nods to Rear Window, but this is shown in split-screen instead of Hitchcock’s preferred technique of subjective montage. In fact, the next sequence in this film relies heavily on split-screen—a device that Brian De Palma is known for and uses in many of his films (with varying degrees of success). It actually works surprisingly well in Sisters for a variety of reasons. For one thing split-screen reflects the “split” nature of Danielle and Dominique (in more ways than one), but it also provides a bridge between the Phillip/Danielle perspective and the Grace Collier perspective since this single sequence is shared equally between them. Of course, it wasn’t the first time that he had used this device and it wouldn’t be the last.

“[The] split-screen, I got from Dionysus in ’69 where I shot the narrative of the play and Bob Fiore shot the audience’s involvement with the players and the play. And then I got this idea: ‘Well we’ll show them simultaneously.’ The thing about movies is that you’re telling the audience what to look at. When you cut to something, you’re saying ‘Oh, there’s something important going on here. Look at that! The thing about split-screen is the audience has a chance to sort of put two images together simultaneously, and something happens in their head. You’re giving them a juxtaposition as opposed to, “THIS!” Split-screen is a technique that can take you out of the experience. The idea is, ‘where is it appropriate?’ In Sisters it worked quite well: ‘Can I get the blood cleaned up before Jennifer [Salt] comes around with the police?’” –Brian De Palma (De Palma, 2015)

Grace calls the police and hurries around to find the location of Danielle’s apartment before two police officers arrive at the scene with a chip on their shoulder. (It seems that Grace has recently written a rather unflattering article about the local police department.) As our new protagonist answers their questions and tries to talk them into investigating the murder instead of wasting time as they address their own hostilities, Emil has arrived at Danielle’s apartment and helps her clean up Dominique’s bloody mess. Much of this plays out in split screen and it is really quite effective as the viewer waits to see if the mess can be cleaned up before Grace arrives at the door with the police. If the sequence has a flaw, it lies in the fact that there is temporal manipulation in the form of editing during the Emil/Danielle portion of the frame while Grace interacts with the police in real time. Ideally, both scenes should have played out mostly in real time for maximum effect.

Sisters Splitscreen - Cleanup.jpg

Even with these flaws, the split-screen device works much better in this film than it did in many of De Palma’s other films. One can’t help but wonder if he didn’t continue using the device in an effort to put his stamp on a film without ever considering how it would affect the scene. One example would be the prom rampage in Carrie. After her cruel humiliation, we see the film’s titular character take violent vengeance on the students and faculty. It plays out in a series of split-screen shots, and the effect of the chaotic violence is largely diminished as a result. This is only one example of many, but it seems that the director now agrees with this particular criticism after having given the sequence a few decades of retrospective analysis:

“[Split-screen is] very good for some types of storytelling and not so good for things like the trashing of the prom in Carrie, because split-screen doesn’t really work well in action. It’s more of a meditative technique.” –Brian De Palma (The Autopsy, 2004)

Carrie 1

Carrie 2.png

The split-screen scene in Carrie (1976) was an error in judgement, and the device doesn’t work nearly as well in this film as it did in Sisters (1973).

Actually, Carrie has a number of distracting touches that seem to serve no function other than to take the viewer out of the film. The most obnoxious example might be a scene where Tommy Ross (William Katt) is seen with a group of his friends as they try on and choose their tuxedos. Suddenly, the scene speeds up and their voices sound like chipmunks. This is a horror film! Establishing and maintaining a certain tone is of paramount importance, and this completely takes the viewer out of the film. De Palma claimed in a commentary track that he felt that the scene was too slow, but this is a scene that could have been shortened by cutting to the next scene a bit earlier or deleting it entirely (it wasn’t at all a necessary scene). There are weird quirks in many of his films, but this is one of the more annoying examples.

However, it seems that this article has gone off on a tangent—and just as it was about to discuss one of the most important scenes in the entirety of Sisters.

It is during the aforementioned clean-up sequence that another Hitchcockian touch is introduced. Emil and Danielle hide Phillip’s body in the sleeper sofa just as a body was hidden in a trunk throughout the entire duration of Rope. It turns out that they finish cleaning and Emil is able to exit the apartment with the rest of the evidence just as Grace arrives at the door with the two police officers—a very nice ending to the film’s celebrated  and the split-screen sequence.

Sisters Splitscreen - Arrival at Door

What follows is an investigation of the apartment that might have had even stronger ties to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope if De Palma had been able to shoot the sequence as he had originally intended:

“One of the scenes which I would have completely reshot had I the money (and it’s no longer in the picture because I couldn’t reshoot it) is one that I had thought about for years and years, where the body is in the couch and it’s bleeding through the bottom of the couch. The whole search scene is a Max Ophuls-type tracking shot about six minutes long, and while they are searching through the apartment, the camera keeps coming back to the couch, and the spot keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I shot it, but because the camera could only get down so low and still go up high enough to shoot the rest of the scene, we couldn’t get down to the bottom of the couch, and when we saw the rushes it looked ridiculous because it looked like the guy was bleeding up through the arm of the couch. So I had to throw out the whole tracking shot, and I was forced to use close-ups and television-type coverage—which bothered me a lot because it was a great conception for that kind of material. (In fact, the whole set had been constructed so that I could track through the entire length and back around, just like Hitchcock did in Rope.)” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

What we are left with is still quite interesting as the couch still manages to loom large in the scene as we are shown a blood stain that goes unnoticed just as Grace actually sits down on the sofa as she argues that there must be evidence of the murder. As they go through the apartment, Grace discovers that the closet contains two of each outfit and asks Danielle if she has a twin sister. Danielle insists that she has multiples of her outfits because she is a model and sometimes need a backup. This lie is nearly exposed when Grace discovers the birthday cake (which reads “Happy Birthday, Dominique and Danielle”) in the refrigerator, but she slips on the floor and destroys the cake before the two police officers can read it.

The police consider the matter closed after this fruitless search, but Grace is undeterred and continues to investigate the matter on her own and hires a private detective named Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) to assist in the investigation. Larch decides that another search is in order and uses the guise of a window cleaner to enter the residence after it is determined that the residence is empty. Meanwhile, Grace watches this search from her apartment with a pair of binoculars in a scene that recalls a sequence from Rear Window wherein Lisa Freemont investigates Lars Thorwald’s apartment while he is away. Larch soon signals to Grace from one of the windows that he has found something, but Danielle and a pair of unknown men return to the apartment. Grace distracts Danielle by dialing her phone and Larch soon signals that everything is okay (it is unclear what actually transpires since the view is much more limited here than it is was in Rear Window).

Rear Window - Hitchcock

Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) silently addresses L.B. Jefferies from Lars Thorwald’s apartment in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).

Rear Window - Sisters

Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) silently addresses Grace Collier from Danielle Breton’s apartment in Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973).

De Palma uses Hitchcock’s favored subjective editing style in this particular scene, but he is unable to build the same level of apprehension for a variety of reasons. One important factor here is that we just met Joseph Larch and are not nearly as invested in his character as one is to that of Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. Another issue here is that the film is less carefully thought out and the result is a scene that isn’t nearly as clear as the similar scene in Hitchcock’s film.

Shortly thereafter, Grace watches Emil and the two men previously seen in the apartment as they load the sleeper sofa into the back of a moving van. Meanwhile, Larch returns to the van and gives her a file that he found hidden in Danielle’s room and tells her that he tried moving the sofa to find that it was much too heavy and has come to the conclusion that this is where they have hidden Phillip’s body. He decides that he will follow the moving van and tells Grace to wait in her apartment and he will call her with updates. However, Grace has no intention of doing this, because the records contained in the file reveal that not only does Danielle have a twin sister named Dominique, but they were conjoined at the hip until very recently.

Grace remembers a story written about Dominique and Danielle that was published in Life magazine and visits the writer of the piece. It is here that she learns two important things: Dominique was once mentally unstable, and she died in surgery as the result of the separation. Those familiar with Psycho might compare this revelation with the scene where Lila Crane and Sam Loomis are told by Sherriff Chambers that Mrs. Bates died in a murder-suicide incident several years prior.

Soon thereafter, Grace tails Emil and Danielle to a mental institution in a sequence that owes more to Roman Polanski than it does to Alfred Hitchcock (at least in terms of style). Grace watches as Danielle struggles against Emil and is soon discovered. Emil (the head doctor at this institution) convinces one of his staff that she is a new patient and proceeds to hypnotize her, “There was no body, because there was no murder.” While she is still under hypnosis, we are taken into a dream or hallucination that inexplicably places Grace in Dominique’s memory:

“…The history of the twins growing up in the Institute and their separation is via a sort of dream imagery, which I think makes it much more interesting. The idea derives from Polanski. I have always liked the dream sequence in Rosemary’s Baby where the devil makes love to her. It was a good idea because you never really know whether or not it happened, and the imagery is terrific. It also avoids the scene in Psycho where the psychiatrist sits down and explains everything. An expository scene can be a kind of boring scene, but you need it because the audience doesn’t know what’s happening and you’ve got to explain it to them. By placing it in a dream, I think you get a sort of visceral feeling for what went on rather than specific information.” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

Rosemary's Baby - Dream 1

The surreal nightmare-rape sequence in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) inspired the ill-advised dream elements that tainted the final act of Sisters (1973).

Frankly, this is the moment that the film de-rails. The dream sequence is an unnecessary element and serves only to confuse the viewer (while exposition is intended to clarify or provide information). We really don’t learn anything of paramount importance that we do not already know or won’t learn in the moments following this hallucination. Furthermore, it isn’t nearly as interesting or as well executed as the scene in Rosemary’s Baby that inspired it.

This ineffectual nightmare is immediately followed by a scene wherein Emil reminds Danielle that Dominique died as a result of the surgical separation that he performed on them, and we learn that she compensated for this loss by giving Dominique life in her mind (a psychological phenomenon that is now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder). He also explains that Dominique’s personality takes over any time that he tries to make love with her. If De Palma’s intention for the illogical hallucinatory nightmare was to provide the film’s expository revelations in a more cinematic manner than the typical dialogue scene, one has to ask why he follows the scene with expository dialogue.

It also seems unlikely that an educated doctor who has just revealed the fact that his sexual attention triggers the wrath of Dominique would punctuate this information by giving Danielle a passionate kiss when she is obviously in an unstable state of mind, but this is exactly what he does. Of course, the inevitable result of this moment of incredible stupidity is his death—and the result of this murder is that Danielle is arrested (although she still seems completely oblivious to the reality of her condition). Unfortunately, Grace seems irrevocably damaged and emphatically insists that, “there was no body, because there was no murder” when the police take her statement. The picture ends on a short shot of Joseph Larch watching the abandoned sleeper sofa that no one will ever claim. It goes without saying that the film’s premise owes a huge debt to Psycho.

It seems fitting that such a film should be scored by Bernard Herrmann, but his participation actually began after the film entered post-production. In fact, one might even say that his score was merely an inspired afterthought.

“When we were doing Sisters my editor, Paul Hirsch laid a lot of Benny’s stuff from Psychoin a temp track. As we were looking at it and it worked so well, we sort of looked at each other and said, ‘where’s Bernard Herrmann now?’ So, we brought him to New York to look at the film… Of course, as soon as he hears—I forget what it was, but I think it was either Vertigo or Psycho—but he starts to hear the music [and] he starts shrieking. He says, ‘Stop the projector! Stop it, stop it. I can’t hear that!’ And I said, ‘Oh, my God! So we stop the projector. He says, ‘I can’t look at your movie and listen to that!’ So, we frantically pulled all the temp track off and then played the movie silent for him… But he was scary.” –Brian De Palma (De Palma, 2015)

Of course, Herrmann’s score added immensely to the film’s overall power. It also reinforced all of the inevitable comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

Conclusion: The Trouble with De Palma

“…But then I am no Hitchcock—I don’t have the resources or the time or the skill to do that yet.” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

It has now been 45 years later since the release of Sisters, and Brian De Palma now has the resources and the time. He has also developed his technical skills, but this shouldn’t suggest that he has risen to Alfred Hitchcock’s level since technical proficiency is no match for creative genius. This should have never become De Palma’s goal in the first place, because it is impossible to develop one’s own creative voice while attempting time and time again imitate someone else.

It is somewhat difficult to get a handle on such a filmmaker. One cannot say that he merely mimics Alfred Hitchcock since a great number of his films bear very little if any resemblance to Hitchcock’s work. However, De Palma has made quite a few films that borrow heavily from the master’s oeuvre and he seems to delight in rubbing the viewer’s nose in their similarities. This is unfortunate, because one never becomes fully engaged in a film if they are constantly comparing it to someone else’s movie. To confuse matters even further, he consistently compares his films to those made by Alfred Hitchcock only to chastise critics and scholars for making these same observations.

“Well, I’m compared to Hitchcock all the time, mostly by people who don’t quite understand me or Hitchcock. I understand Hitchcock extremely well. I mean, I’ve been behind those eyeballs. I see the way those shots are constructed.

And many of the comparisons… are ludicrous. You read them all the time. You don’t know what these people are seeing on the screen. They talk about Carrie—the bath scene—being like the Psycho shower scene, and it’s like, ‘what?’ I mean, the Psycho shower scene is completely unique. It’s a whole series of very clever quick cuts. Carrie gets into the bathtub [and] washes the blood off in about three different cuts! There’s absolutely no relationship except [that] there’s a girl in water.” –Brian De Palma (The Autopsy, 2004)

This may seem a like an extremely valid argument, but thousands of comparisons have been made of the two directors throughout the years (many of them by De Palma himself), and most of these comparisons are blatantly obvious. His arrogant and manipulative assertion that those who compare him with Alfred Hitchcock do not “understand” him or Hitchcock is beyond absurd. What’s more, his argument is based purely on how these two scenes are shot. He never considers their context or what the two scenes being compared actually represent. One imagines that it is De Palma who misinterpreted whichever critic happened to make this comparison and not the critic who misinterpreted him.

At first, this reviewer agreed with De Palma’s assertion that any comparison between Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho and the bath scene in Carrie is ridiculous. However, after giving it a moment of consideration, it now seems like an interesting observation—an observation that has nothing to do with how the two scenes are shot or how they work on the audience. Marion Crane’s shower was a symbolic baptism in that she was washing away her sin (the theft of the $40,000). Carrie White’s bath can also be seen as a cleansing of her sins (the murderous rampage at the prom). The symbolism is made even more obvious in Carrie due to the fact that she is literally washing away blood (not to mention the other religious iconography that saturates the film).

Whatever one’s opinion on this particular argument may be, it should certainly strike the reader as incredibly strange that De Palma should become irritated at being compared with Alfred Hitchcock. It was he himself who started this comparison during his publicity interviews for Sisters, and he would continue positioning himself in this manner for quite some time. He seems to have spent a significant portion of his career making films that he himself admits borrow heavily from the master’s body of work. After all, this is the same man who made Obsession! To call this a radical contradiction would be a massive understatement.

Vertigo.jpg

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is actually one of Brian De Palma’s primary influences and he has borrowed liberally from the film throughout his career. Obsession (1976), for example, borrowed liberally from the film:
…I saw [Vertigo] in 1958, and it had an incredible impression on me way before I was interested in making movies. And there was something about the way the story was told and the cinematic language used in it that connected to me, even though, at that point, I was studying to be an engineer.” –Brian De Palma (NPR, July 01, 2016)

For a filmmaker who has consistently gone out of his way to promote himself as a student of Hitchcock’s, De Palma doesn’t really seem to have a handle on his work. He even seems ignorant about basic trivia that is known to basically everyone who has even a casual interest in the subject. As an example, he writes in Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill—an article about his working relationship with Bernard Herrmann that he had thought the composer had already passed away. When his editor, Paul Hirsch questioned this, De Palma stood firm, “Look, I don’t have the dates, but the last movie I remember him doing was The Birds and that was ten years ago.

Most cinephiles are aware of the fact that The Birds has no score and that Herrmann merely acted as a “sound consultant” (which in retrospect seems like a title one gives to temperamental composers with sensitive egos as a way to ensure a continuing working relationship). Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann deserve more credit for bringing Hitchcock’s unique ideas to life than Bernard Herrmann. Worse, De Palma seems to have forgotten the composer’s great work on Marnie—even though they had used a selection from this score in the temp track for Sisters (as is indicated later in the same article).

Of course, De Palma’s ignorance about such trivialities doesn’t really matter very much. One simply feels that if he wants to sell himself as a student of Alfred Hitchcock’s (much less the “heir” to his thrown), he should at least admit that he never paid any attention in class. De Palma may borrow heavily from Hitchcock, but he often overlooks (or ignores) important elements that are inherent in the master’s approach to a scene and replaces them with devices that are more in line with his own aesthetic. The result is usually a mishmash that doesn’t quite work. Luckily, Sisters almost came out unscathed in spite of these tendencies… almost.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Criterion Collection houses their disc in the same sturdy clear case that has become the standard for their releases (we prefer this to their digipaks). The cover sleeve includes thematically appropriate artwork by Jay Shaw that is an improvement over their artwork for the earlier DVD edition but somewhat less impressive than Criterion’s best cover art. Happily, we are given an attractively illustrated booklet instead of their standard folded leaflet. It contains an essay by Carrie Rickey entitled, Sisters: Psycho-Thriller, Qu’est-ce Que c’est?, excerpts from an archival interview with Brian De Palma that was originally published in Filmmakers Newsletter in September of 1973, and Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill, which is an article written by the Brian De Palma about his professional relationship with composer Bernard Hermann. It was originally published in the October 11, 1973 edition of The Village Voice. This booklet adds an enormous amount of value to an already attractive package.

Menu

Criterion’s animated menu features footage from the movie and is in the same style that collectors have come to expect from Criterion’s Blu-ray releases. It is attractive and should be intuitive to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Well, Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration transfer is a significant improvement over Arrow’s 2014 transfer. There may be a few fans who prefer Arrow’s color grading but it seems reasonable to assume that Criterion’s disc is more accurate since it has been approved by Brian De Palma (although this isn’t necessarily true). We know that Criterion has always prided itself on trying to represent the films in their collection in the manner that the filmmakers originally intended. Highlights look especially better here than they did in the earlier release. The only issue here is that the color does shift a bit.

Another difference between the two transfers is that Criterion presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. We should make it a point to mention that while Arrow’s 1.78:1 transfer may have included more information at the top and bottom of the frame, Criterion gives the viewers more information at the left and right of the image (while presenting the film as it was seen in theaters).

There may be a bit more grain evident but this is likely due to the increase in detail that the new 4K scan gives the image. Frankly, this grain looks more organic and well resolved here despite the fact that there is more of it. Many cinephiles will appreciate the filmic texture of the image. There are some density fluctuations that were inherent in the source elements that are unfortunate, but since these were unavoidable it would be unfair to blame the transfer. Depth has certainly been given a boost as has fine detail. There may be a few age-related issue present, but Criterion seems to have removed most of these anomalies. Overall, this is a very nice transfer that was limited only by the original source elements.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s lossless Mono track represents the film’s original mix. It might be a marginal improvement over Arrow’s transfer as it seems to be fuller and allow the various elements (including the Bernard Herrmann score) more breathing room. There isn’t a huge difference, but that earlier sound transfer was really quite decent. Some may criticize Criterion for not including an upgraded 5.1 track, but the important thing is that this is a very good representation of the original sound.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Audio Interview with Brian De Palma

This 1973 discussion with Brian De Palma was recorded at the American Film Institute and plays over the film as if it were a commentary track. The conversation is largely focused around Sisters, but other films are briefly discussed as well. It is certainly an interesting listening experience, although some of the questions from members of the audience are quite difficult to hear or can be inarticulate even when they are audible. It is amusing to hear De Palma’s irritation at times as certain questions rub him the wrong way, but he is quite open as to his intentions and his responses are worth hearing. Especially interesting are his recollections about working with Bernard Herrmann.

Interview with actor Jennifer Salt – (24:07)

Jennifer Salt discusses her friendships and the lifestyle that she shared with her Margot Kidder and Brian De Palma before the production of Sisters, and how she and Kidder were eventually cast in the film (their roles were written for them). She also goes into their experiences while shooting the film and her initial disappointment that it wasn’t an immediate classic. Her memories are interesting and worthwhile even if much of the information is vague and generalized.

The Autopsy – (26:32)

The Autopsy is a “making of” retrospective that was produced by “Wild Side Video” and features interviews with Brian De Palma, Paul Hirsch, Bill Finley, Edward R. Pressman, and Charles Durning. It was produced in 2004 and contains a fair amount of information about the film’s conception and production. It isn’t as comprehensive as one might hope, but it is well worth the viewer’s time as it does add to one’s appreciation of the film itself.

Margot Kidder on The Dick Cavett Show (1970) – (08:56)

This pre-Sisters interview with the late Margot Kidder finds the actress in a quirky but charming form. This excerpt also includes a rather large dose of an equally charming Gloria Swanson and a tiny dose of Janis Joplin (we don’t see much of her). It’s a nice addition to the disc even if it doesn’t bring anything in the way of Sisters-related information. It is an enjoyable nine minutes.

Photo Gallery – (11:20)

Herrmann’s music accompanies this lengthy no-frills slideshow of production photography. It is nice to see these photos included in some manner as most of them were new to this reviewer.

Radio Spots – (03:31)

This collection of radio spots is accompanied by pages from the film’s press book. Both the press book and the collection of radio spots give cinephiles a brief glimpse into the film’s marketing. Unfortunately, much of the text featured here is impossible to read.

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Final Words:

De Palma has proclaimed himself to be the “only true heir” to Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic technique. We disagree with this on a number of levels, but such a claim wouldn’t be worth celebrating even if it were true.

Luckily, Sisters works as mindless exploitation once accepted on its own terms (even if—like Danielle—it is unable to establish its own identity), and this Criterion release offers genre fans a very good transfer coupled with a supplemental package that adds to one’s overall appreciation of the film… Just remember that those who want to see something truly Hitchcockian should watch a film that was actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Review by: Devon Powell

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One Sheet

Offbeat 4K UHD Review: Halloween

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Lionsgate Films

Release Date: September 25, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:30:56

Video: 2160P (HEVC, H.265)

Main Audio: 7.1 English Dolby TrueHD (48kHz, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio: Mono English Dolby Digital Audio

Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 2.35:1

Notes: This title has seen many DVD releases and two Blu-ray releases. This marks the film’s UHD debut. Special features are never consistent when it comes to this particular title, and this creates a problem for anyone who wishes for a clean upgrade. The transfer for the UHD disc was sourced from different elements than the included Blu-ray (see below for a more detailed analysis).

Halloween

“Well, you call it a slasher film. I guess the original slasher film was Psycho. That was the film that all of these things are kind of based on… Psycho was the big daddy of them all. And it had a literal slashing scene in it! The famous shower scene. So I don’t think I created anything…” –John Carpenter (Crave Online, Oct 23rd, 2013)

Is it even possible to discuss John Carpenter’s classic without mentioning Psycho? It’s difficult to find an article about (or a review of) Halloween that doesn’t at least mention Hitchcock’s landmark film. In fact, Roger Ebert opened his original review of Halloween with a quote by Alfred Hitchcock before he proceeded to compare the two films:

“‘I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.’ –Alfred Hitchcock

So does John Carpenter. Halloween is an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to Psycho. It’s a terrifying and creepy film about what one of the characters calls Evil Personified… Halloween is a visceral experience — we aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us. It’s frightening. Maybe you don’t like movies that are really scary: Then don’t see this one… Credit must be paid to filmmakers who make the effort to really frighten us, to make a good thriller when quite possibly a bad one might have made as much money. Hitchcock is acknowledged as a master of suspense; it’s hypocrisy to disapprove of other directors in the same genre who want to scare us too.

It’s easy to create violence on the screen, but it’s hard to do it well… ” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 31, 1979)

John Carpenter during the production of Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter during the production of Halloween.

The truth is that there is very little “violence on the screen” after the film’s opening murder sequence. Carpenter plays by the same rules utilized by Hitchcock while maintaining a style all his own. It is no small wonder that Ebert goes on to describe Carpenter’s expert command of the frame—it is a command that demands participation from the viewer. The film’s killer, Michael Myers, looms ominously in the background and usually remains in the shadows (or is seen at some distance). He is a malignant force that can be felt even when our eyes might miss him, and one never knows where he might turn up next. At other times, he will appear mysteriously in the foreground as his potential victims complacently go about their lives in the distance. Either way, the audience is aware of his presence while the teenagers remain blissfully in the dark—and this is Hitchcock’s primary rule for creating suspense. We know something that the characters do not know, and their ignorance may very well cost them their lives.

The emphasis is on the stalking sequences instead of the inevitable carnage. The eventual deaths contain little violence and relatively little blood. It simply isn’t needed. Carpenter, like Hitchcock before him, shows his audience the threat before making them wait for the violence. He has an uncanny ability to slowly build an audience’s anticipation until the suspense is nearly intolerable.

Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis

Mother and Daughter: Janet Leigh with Jamie Lee Curtis.

However, while one cannot deny that Hitchcock’s influence on Carpenter can be felt while watching Halloween, one doubts if a thorough comparison to Psycho would withstand serious scrutiny. Frankly, most of their commonalities are somewhat superficial. One imagines that Halloween’s various homages to Hitchcock’s film is responsible for linking these two vastly different exercises in suspense: Dr. Sam Loomis was named after John Gavin’s character in Psycho, Marion Chambers seems to be an amalgam of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane and John McIntire’s Sheriff Chambers, and Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh. One could argue that both Bates and Myers favor the butcher knife as their weapon of choice, but this isn’t a particularly revelatory observation.

Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween)

Janet Leigh as ‘Marion Crane’ in Psycho and Jamie Lee Curtis as ‘Laurie Strode’ in Halloween.

Sam Loomis and Dr. Sam Loomis

John Gavin as ‘Sam Loomis’ in Psycho and Donald Pleasence as ‘Dr. Sam Loomis’ in Halloween.

Several scholars have chosen to compare the original murders of Michael Myers and Norman Bates from a quasi-psychological perspective and argue that Myers murdered his sister for showing another boy sexual attention just as Bates dispatched his mother for having a relationship with another man. This reading of the film suggests that, like Norman Bates, Myers is a stunted adolescent. Norman Bates forms an alternate personality to keep from facing the consequences of his actions while Myers literally wears a mask to keep reality at bay. This would certainly explain why sex seems to act as a trigger for Myers, and such an examination would definitely be more interesting than the popular opinion that Halloween is a kind of puritanical morality play about the evils of carnal knowledge (a reading that Carpenter himself has always argued against). It might be very interesting to view the film from this perspective, but it is impossible not to feel that this particular argument is a bit overreaching.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. After all, the fact that Halloween is still being discussed and analyzed some forty years after its initial release places it in a distinguished group of timeless classics—and this is inarguably something that the film shares with Psycho. What else matters?

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Lionsgate houses their UHD and Blu-ray discs in a standard 2-disc UHD case with a sleeve that includes the same iconic jack-o’-lantern artwork that graced the film’s most popular one sheet. This is as it should be! It is one of the best marketing images that has ever been produced for a horror film. The first pressing also includes a sleeve with this same artwork that will help protect the case and the discs that are housed inside.

One Sheet.jpg

The UHD menu is reasonably attractive and easy to navigate. Meanwhile, the included Blu-ray features the same animated menu seen on Anchor Bay’s original Blu-ray release of Halloween in 2007. (It is exactly the same disc. The only difference is the artwork that decorates it.)

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Picture Quality:

UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins
Blu-ray: 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Disc 1: 4K UHD

This transfer was approved by John Carpenter and Dean Cundy, so fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief! This disc offers the viewer an option of HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The film has been scanned at native 4K for this release, and the result is really quite pleasing to the eye. There is, of course, a natural patina of grain inherent in the image, but this only adds to the filmic look of this overall transfer. The significant increase in resolution and dynamic range has resulted in a crisper and significantly more detailed image. The anamorphic lenses tend to result in a softer look at the edges of the frame, but this is hardly the fault of the transfer. Everything looks terrific here! The best news of all is that the color timing seems to correspond with the filmmaker’s original intention and mirrors the overall look of the “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray release.

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

It is next to impossible to review this image transfer without also discussing the film’s “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray released in 2013. This disc is actually an earlier 2007 release—complete with the same opening previews, menu, and transfer. It has simply been decorated with artwork from the 2013 release. This may be confusing, but trust us when we tell you that this is the 2007 version.

The transfer included here simply isn’t inaccurate and doesn’t represent the original intention of those who worked on it. It is way too bright as the image practically glows, and the color timing is a complete mess. This throws the film’s tone off-kilter (a real tragedy as Carpenter has an amazing ability to create an atmosphere of dread). Unfortunately, these aren’t the only areas in which the later edition bests this disc in terms of image quality. The early exterior scenes were vastly improved and exhibit less vibrant colors and more natural skin tones than this particular transfer (as the colors here read much too warm). It had a crisper and more detailed image as well and clarity isn’t quite as good here either.

When the “35th Anniversary” edition was released, marketing materials highlighted the fact that it was a new transfer that had been overseen by Dean Cundey (the film’s cinematographer):

“A lot of the previous editions had just been made from a print or a previous digital version or whatever. I was very impressed by the fact that they wanted to make this sort of the definitive copy. Obviously, Blu-ray is, at the moment, state-of-the-art, and the fact that they went back to original materials, the camera negative and IP, and brought John and myself in to sort of approve the work and make sure it looked like our original intention, was highly commendable, I think. Yes, they did take advantage of all the latest technology, with scratch and dirt removal, things like that, so it is a very pristine example of the movie we made.” –Dean Cundey (Liner Notes: “35th Anniversary” Edition, 2013)

Such careful preparation was obviously in response to this disc, so those who own the “35th Anniversary” Edition would be wise to hold on to it if they wish to own the very best transfer in both the UHD and Blu-ray formats.

One wonders why they chose this disc over the other edition, and the only reason one can reasonably conceive is that this disc was chosen so that Halloween fanatics could have the supplements included here (since the supplements on the UHD have been carried over from the “35th Anniversary” edition). However, they could have easily put them on the freshly minted UHD along with the others if this was the reasoning behind this choice.

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Sound Quality:

UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins
Blu-ray: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc employs a TrueHD 7.1 lossless mix that is an obvious upgrade from the previous disc. The film’s iconic score has never sounded more dynamic and the dialogue is noticeably clearer than in the previous Blu-ray edition. This is especially clear in an early car scene where Dr. Loomis and Marion Chambers are driving in the storm. In the previous release, the dialogue seemed to be swallowed by the sounds of the storm. Here it seems to be balanced at a more acceptable level. The track has decent range and clarity making for a solid listening experience. It would be unreasonable to believe that a 7.1 mix on an older low budget film could sound any better than it does on this disc.

It will irritate most purists to discover that a high definition transfer of the film’s original mono mix isn’t included here, and I must admit that I include myself in this group. I’m tempted to give the sound a three star rating do to this oversight, but one doesn’t wish to give an unfair assessment of what is actually here.

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Special Features:

UHD: 3 of 5 MacGuffins
Blu-ray: 4 of 5 MacGuffins
Total: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Disc 1: 4K UHD

Every supplement featured on this UHD disc has been carried over from the “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray edition of Halloween.

Feature Length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis

People will likely feel that this new commentary is superior in some ways to the track on the 2007 Blu-ray disc that has been included in this same package. That track includes John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Debra Hill—but all three of these collaborators were recorded individually for that track, and the result isn’t nearly as fluid as the conversation between Carpenter and Curtis that is featured here. Having said this, the other track might be a bit more informative than this one. Both tracks should be of interest to fans of the film.

TV Version Footage – (SD) – (10:46)

This collection of scenes is actually my favorite supplement on the UHD disc. They were shot by Carpenter during the production of Halloween II in order to extend the film’s length for its original television broadcast, but he claims to regret doing this and feels that he sold out. It’s easy to understand why the director doesn’t care for them as they add nothing to the proceedings and interrupt the fluidity of the overall film. Having said this, one is happy to have them included on this disc for fans to revisit.

The Night She Came Home!! – (HD) – (59:43)

This featurette gives fans a glimpse of Jamie Lee Curtis as she attends a horror convention in order to monetize her horror celebrity for charity. She is shown signing autographs, talking to her fans, taking photos, and even hanging out with other Halloween alumni. Fans should find it extremely interesting if somewhat anemic when it comes to the amount of actual information provided. It simply isn’t terribly revelatory.

On Location: 25 Years Later – (SD) – (10:25)

This feature is ported over from one of the film’s many DVD editions and is a look at the various South Pasadena locations as they appeared on the film’s 25th anniversary. It is worth viewing, but why did they not include Halloween Unmasked 2000 instead? Unmasked is a 28 minute documentary about the making of the film that is far more informative than this featurette, and it includes some of the film’s important locations as well. What’s more, it hasn’t been included on either of the film’s Blu-ray releases. Oh well.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

It is nice to have the film’s trailer included. Too many supplemental packages seem to forget this basic feature.

Three Television Spots – (SD) – (00:32, 00:32, 00:12)

Three Radio Spots – (HD) – (00:29, 00:27, 00:28)

These vintage television and radio spots are interesting artifacts and nice additions to the supplemental package (even if watching them all together does tend to become somewhat repetitive).

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

Again, this is the exact same disc that was released by Anchor Bay in 2007. The disc includes three unique supplements.

Feature Length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Debra Hill

As mentioned previously, this commentary track may provide a bit more information to listeners than the 2013 track discussed above, but one’s listening experience isn’t quite as fluid. Basically, both tracks have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest – (SD) – (01:27:07)

The best overall supplement included in this set is undoubtedly this feature-length “behind the scenes” documentary. It covers the entire production history of Halloween, the film’s release, and its enduring legacy. Frankly, it was incredibly annoying to find that the “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray didn’t include this essential supplement. Those who are annoyed that Lionsgate included the 2007 Blu-ray instead of the “35th Anniversary” Edition may find solace in the fact that they are getting an excellent documentary that wasn’t included in that later edition.

Fast Film Facts (Textual Trivia Track)

This feature allows the viewer to watch the films with occasional trivia information occasionally appearing on the screen (very much like subtitles). One doubts if most people will want to revisit this particular feature terribly often since it tends to take one out of the film. It would be better to utilize this option while listening to the commentary track.

Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

Three Television Spots – (SD) – (00:32, 00:32, 00:12)

Three Radio Spots – (HD) – (00:29, 00:27, 00:28)

The Theatrical Trailer, Television Spots, and Radio Spots are all exactly the same as those featured on the UHD disc.

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Final Words:

John Carpenter’s Halloween is forty years old and still going strong. It is an incredibly efficient suspense thriller that demands to be revisited. Luckily, it can now be revisited in 4K UHD. Just remember to hold on to your “35th Anniversary” Edition Blu-rays since the image transfer on that release is vastly superior to the Blu-ray included in this package.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Alternate Poster

 

Blu-ray Review: Under Capricorn

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: June 19, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:57:14

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.93 Mbps

Notes: This title was previously given a bare bones DVD release.

Title

Under Capricorn was made for Ingrid Bergman… but if I’d been thinking clearly, I’d never have tackled a costume picture. You’ll notice I’ve never done any since that time. Besides, there wasn’t enough humor in the film. If I were to make another picture in Australia today, I’d have a policeman hop into the pocket of a kangaroo and yell, ‘Follow that car!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Many scholars have pontificated as to why Hitchcock chose to adapt Helen Simpson’s Under Capricorn as what was originally intended to be the première Transatlantic Films production. The major studios had all wisely passed on optioning the property. In fact, they had also passed on the other properties purchased by Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock for Transatlantic. Under Capricorn, Rope, Stage Fright, and I Confess were all considered inappropriate material in which to build a suitable film script. Few if any of these historians seem to have given any consideration to the possibility that these “passed over” properties may have been the only ones that the budding production company could afford. It is doubtful that they would be able to outbid the major studios on more promising subjects (although Rope and I Confess are both incredibly underrated). This is only conjecture but it seems a reasonable possibility and one wishes that this avenue could be explored in more depth.

Alfred Hitchcock always claimed that he chose the property because he felt that Ingrid Bergman would respond to the material and that he was so absorbed with signing the actress to a film that this became his only consideration.

“I had no special admiration for the novel, and I don’t think I would have made the picture if it hadn’t been for Ingrid Bergman. At that time, she was the biggest star in America and all the American producers were competing for her services, and I must admit that I made the mistake of thinking that to get Bergman would be a tremendous feat; it was a victory over the rest of the industry, you see. That was bad thinking, and my behavior was almost infantile. Because even if the presence of Bergman represented a commercial asset, it made the whole thing so costly that there was no point to it. Had I examined the whole thing more carefully from the commercial angle, I would not have spent two and a half million dollars on the picture. At the time, that was a lot of money, you see… Anyway, I looked upon Bergman as a feather in my cap. We were making it with our own production company, and all I could think about was, ‘Here I am, Hitchcock, the onetime English director, returning to London with the biggest star of the day.’ I was literally intoxicated by the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at Bergman and myself at the London airport. All of these externals seemed to be terribly important. I can only say now that I was being stupid and juvenile.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This makes sense when one considers that the director was enjoying his first taste of freedom after being emancipated from the shackles of his contract with David O. Selznick. It was more important for the director to distinguish himself as a producer than to satisfy his own creative interests (at least when it came to his material). Under Capricorn was to be a star vehicle to rival those that Selznick was so fond of producing, and the fact that Bergman had already refused to sign another contract with Selznick would have made this victory even sweeter.

Ingrid Bergman in a Publicity Still for 'Under Capricorn'

Publicity Still of Ingrid Bergman: “The film was done more or less for the benefit of Ingrid Bergman. That was a case of trying to find a subject to suit the star, which I don’t believe in. So, it was really a compromise…” –Alfred Hitchcock (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

 WRITING THE SCRIPT

Unfortunately, Selznick had been able to procure prestigious properties and Hitchcock was stuck with a rather tedious novel that borrowed heavily from much better pieces of literature. Hitchcock’s film is thankfully much different than the convoluted mess that Simpson originally concocted. Her story is divided into three sections, and Hitchcock’s film only follows the first of these before providing a more coherent denouement. His final act has been criticized for being rather weak, but it must be said that reading the original novel gives one new respect for Hitchcock’s conclusion.

As mentioned, the film follows the first section of Simpson’s text rather faithfully, but the stories diverge at the Governor’s ball (which is a St. Patrick’s Day dance in the novel). This dance begins the second section of Smith’s novel, and it is at this point when her story becomes much more convoluted and tangential. Constantine Verevis gives a more detailed comparison between the film and the novel in an essay entitled, “Under a Distemperate Star” (although she takes a more appreciative view of the original novel than it really deserves). Her account of the rest of the book is a concise and more enjoyable way of comparing these two very different stories than actually having to read the book:

“The beginning of [section] two takes up the story—some three months after Adare’s arrival—on the occasion of the St. Patrick’s Day dance, the event Adare chooses to present the restored Lady Henrietta to social life… The Irish dance becomes the point of Hitchcock’s departure, setting up Henrietta’s emergence at the ball (as Adare’s first artistic creation) as the occasion of Flusky’s public reclamation of his wife. This event provokes—in the celebrated 9.5 minute sequence shot—Henrietta’s confession to Adare that it was she (not Flusky) who killed Dermont [James in the novel] in self-defense and sets up a number of confrontations that lead ultimately to the restoration of the married couple, Flusky and Henrietta. In order to effect this, Hitchcock excises from the novel Adare’s encounter at the dance with a young working-class woman much nearer his age—the locally born Susan Quaife—to whom he takes an immediate liking…

…Adare proceeds to court Susan, visiting her at her father’s barbershop on George Street. Around the same time, Adare enlists the help of ‘Ketch,’ the aboriginal leader introduced (none too sympathetically) following Adare’s first dinner with Flusky, to embark upon a treacherous journey north to Port Macquarie and then inland to unknown territory in search of gold. Milly has spread vile rumors that Adare and Henrietta are lovers, and Flusky (mildly suspicious of Adare) is quick to agree to fund the expedition. Convinced that Flusky has effectively delivered Adare (in repetition of her brother’s fate) to his death, Henrietta becomes despondent and turns to drink.

[Section] three thus begins with Henrietta again fighting her demons. Five months have passed with no word of Adare. Milly returns to assume control of the household, and this time it is Winter, the gentleman servant, who challenges Milly’s authority. Winter is soon expelled (given his ticket back to convict prison), but before leaving he passes to Henrietta a message left by Adare prior to his departure. The letter asks Henrietta to look up Susan Quaife, and upon doing so she invites Susan for an extended stay at the Flusky mansion, where Henrietta proceeds to groom the illiterate colonial girl in manner and appearance. Around the same time, Flusky is told that Adare has been found close to death but that he is recovering and is expected back in Sidney in December. After some weeks, Adare returns, declaring his love for Susan and [his] desire to stay and work honestly in the colony. This along with Susan’s exposure of Milly’s attempt to usurp Henrietta’s place, conclusively disrupts the romantic triangles and paves the way for a restored relationship between Henrietta and Flusky…

…Simpson does this by substituting the character of Susan Quaife for that of Charles Adare, whose search for gold happens entirely off-stage. Upon relocating to Minyago Yugilla, Susan not only proves herself an able match for the wily Milly, but also comes to function as a surrogate daughter to the childless Henrietta. Adare returns from the expedition matured by his experience on the land… [And] at this point, [he] asks for Susan’s hand in marriage and declares his dedication to the new continent. Simpson sets up the working-class Susan and the nobleman Adare as a parallel (cross-class) couple to Henrietta and Flusky, the latter stating (in anticipation of the young folks’ union), ‘It would be like us, only t’other way round,’ to which Henrietta replies: ‘With a better chance. Better hope. Both free.’” –Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Although, it goes without saying that Under Capricorn isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s best work, it is impossible not to admire how he transformed this convoluted mess into something that resembles a reasonably coherent narrative—although he may have been aided by an earlier dramatization (most likely written for the stage but never produced) by John Colton and Margaret Linden. Their play had also seen fit to jettison some of the book’s later subplots but also confined the action to the Flusky mansion. Having never seen or read this adaptation, it is best not to make any assumptions as to any similarities between it and the film version.

In any case, one completely loses interest after the first section of Simpson’s meandering novel, but Hitchcock and his writers were able to trade this nonsense for a resolution that examines some of Hitchcock’s pet themes regarding an innocent carrying the burden of a wrong that isn’t their own. It comes as no surprise that the French critics loved it! Unfortunately, the film’s pacing is constricted by the kind of long monologues that plague so many of the era’s costume dramas. The director was never able to find an appropriate writer and settled on inappropriate collaborators.

“My second mistake was to ask my friend Hume Cronyn to do the script with me; I wanted him because he’s a very articulate man who knows how to voice his ideas. But as a scriptwriter, he hadn’t really sufficient experience. Still another error was calling on James Bridie to help with the scenario. He was a semi-intellectual playwright and not in my opinion a very thorough craftsman. On thinking it over later on, I realized that he always had very good first and second acts, but he never succeeded in ending his plays. I still remember one of our working sessions on the script. The man and wife had separated after a series of terrible quarrels, and I asked Bridie, ‘How are we going to bring them together again?’ He said, ‘Oh, let them just apologize to each other and say, ‘I’m sorry, it was all a mistake.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hume Cronyn cited Hitchcock’s obsession with the film’s visual design as the source of the weaknesses inherent in the script:

“…I learned a lot from him and I have enormous admiration for him. He put together Under Capricorn image by image, and with all due respect, I think this method sometimes led him astray. He became so fascinated by these images that sometimes the direct line of the narrative would get lost or be bent, or there would be an awkwardness telling the story. He had of course been very revolutionary in the way he approached Rope, and it had been written to be shot in tremendously long takes. But when he came to his next film, it was to cover the vast panorama of colonial life in Australia. The difference in the quality of the two stories was the difference between a miniature and an enormous landscape. Yet, he decided to use the same approach, and I feel that was a mistake and got him into trouble.” –Hume Cronyn (as quoted in ‘The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,’ 1976)

This tendency to blame Hitchcock’s visual approach for the film’s failure is ridiculous, but there were certainly issues that should and could have been addressed and the director was well aware of them when the team was working on the script.

“In the year following Rope, Hitch asked me to do another treatment, this one based on Helen Simpson’s novel Under Capricorn… I went to London with Hitch to work on Capricorn. We would meet for our story conferences at Sidney Bernstein’s offices in Golden Square. From the beginning, the work was fraught with problems. On one particular morning, with Hitch at the end of the table and Sidney and I on the either side of him, Hitch suddenly reared back in his chair, scowling like an angry baby, and announced, ‘This film is going to be a flop. I’m going to lunch.’ And he stalked out of the room, pouting. I was appalled; Sidney was immediately solicitous. ‘Now, Hume, don’t be upset. You know Hitch: he’ll have a good lunch, come back, and everything will be serene.’ It was true; I’d seen Hitch suffer these tantrums before. He never had them on the set; by the time we got there, the whole film was already shot in his head, down to every cut and camera angle… But during a film’s preparation, he could become very mercurial; his emotional thermometer would soar to over a hundred degrees in enthusiasm, only to plunge below freezing in despair. We were alike in that, and I should have been more philosophical about the morning’s upset. The trouble was that in this particular instance I had the awful, nagging suspicion that Hitch’s premonition was accurate.” -Hume Cronyn (his memoirs as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks,’ 1999)

Interestingly, the director originally tried to engage Bridie to write the script to Under Capricorn after finishing his work on The Paradine Case (a Selznick production that has its own script issues) and turned the project down.

“I don’t mind helping to turn The Paradine Case from a bad book into a good film, but it is another story when the book is a good book but based on a philosophy that means nothing to me. If you get the right script writer, Under Capricorn ought to be really memorable. But it is not up my street.” –James Bridie (as quoted in ‘Alfred Hitchcock: A Light in Darkness and Light,’ 2003)

How anyone could judge Simpson’s novel as anything better than mediocre is a mystery, but perhaps this isn’t important since he later relented and agreed to work on the project.

THE PRODUCTION

The script wasn’t the only aspect of the film’s production that gave Hitchcock headaches and the director felt that the film’s casting compromised the film’s verisimilitude.

Under Capricorn was again the lady-and-groom story. Henrietta fell in love with the groom, and when Joseph Cotton was shipped to Australia as a convict, she followed him there. The main element is that she degraded herself for the sake of her love. Cotton wasn’t the right type; Burt Lancaster would have been better.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This statement about the inappropriateness of Joseph Cotton in the role of Flusky isn’t merely the lamentations of a disappointed filmmaker who suddenly becomes aware of something after the fact. During the film’s pre-production, Hitchcock actively sought Burt Lancaster, but the actor required too much money and had other obligations. The production couldn’t be pushed back, and Bergman’s salary had already taken a considerable chunk out of the budget. He would have to find someone else, and that someone ended up being Joseph Cotton.

Joseph Cotten VS. Burt Lancaster

Hitchcock had originally sought Burt Lancaster for the role of Sam Flusky as he believed Cotton too distinguished and charming to portray an ex-stable hand.

One can understand why audiences may have been unable to accept Cotton as an uneducated, manure smelling, brutish groom—but this isn’t such a problem for modern audiences. Frankly, Cotton’s portrayal frees the character from the sort of stereotypical trappings of such characters. Is it outside the realm of possibility that a poor stable-hand might also be intelligent and charming? In any case, this has never been one of the more troubling aspects of Under Capricorn. After all, it is rare to hear anyone complain about Ingrid Bergman’s accent as Lady Henrietta Flusky which isn’t convincingly Irish—a fact that wasn’t lost on the actress. Her inability to give her character a proper Irish brogue plagued Bergman throughout the film’s production and exacerbated an already stressful situation.

Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed a warm friendship that lasted their entire lives, but the production of Under Capricorn put a strain on their relationship. Bergman blamed the contention on various stresses created by the director’s long mobile takes, an approach he carried over from Rope. A series of letters to Ruth Roberts gives one an intimate glimpse into the troubled production. The first and lengthiest of these letters is dated August 06, 1948:

“…Oh dear! This is my seventh week waiting. [Under Capricorn] started O.K. [on] the 19th, but with Hitch’s ten-minute takes they were behind one week after one day’s shooting. The technicians here have very little or no experience—and they don’t seem to care. I have been waiting and waiting, but every day it is the same: ‘We didn’t get the shot today, but for sure we’ll have it tomorrow morning.’ Finally after four days I was told [that] Hitch had abandoned the shot and would start with my entrance. I was so happy. [We] rehearsed and at two o’clock the same day had the first take. During the second take all the lights went out, the electricians walked down the ladders and left. Strike! All afternoon we waited for them to finish their meeting, but they never came back. This morning I was up at six; at nine I was told they had not come back yet: ‘Just relax in your dressing room!’ I am outraged but the others seem to take it relaxed. Nothing new. After the war they always have a couple of strikes. The reason for the strike was that two men were fired because of bad work and coming late to work several times.

Hitch is trying to find an entirely new electricians’ crew. Until then, we’ll have no peace. This is their second walkout. The camera crew and sound crew are nice, but it is a hostile feeling on the set that just kills you. People hardly look or speak to you. When I had the first test, the crew were whistling and making funny remarks. I was stunned because you know how very good people have always been. Don’t think everybody is bad but you know if it is just a few they color the whole set. The script is interesting now [and] we’ve got a pretty good end but Hitch’s new technique I don’t like. I have had no experience with it yet, for my first entrance was just a normal shot. But I have watched him with the others. It is so frightening for actors and crew. If the least bit goes wrong, you know … I think Hitch and I will have some arguments. He wanted to shoot a whole roll of film, the camera following me everywhere and the sets and furniture being pulled away. It meant we had to rehearse a whole day without shooting and then shoot the scenes the following day. It made everybody nervous but he insisted. We already had one little argument about my entrance and I got my way. I know I always can with him, but I dislike the argument… To top the rest of the mishaps I have a slow hairdresser. I have to be here at seven thirty. Makeup is very fast—hardly any—and very grey: no lipstick, no ice-towels, and the rest of Jack Pierce’s fun. All the time is for hair, so already at nine a.m. I am sore, not only my behind… Look what a long letter the strike will give you. It is now eleven thirty. No move in any direction…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

The long takes that she mentions in this letter did create a few problems—some of which were not an issue during the production of Rope. However, any objective analysis of these troubles will reveal that most were beyond Alfred Hitchcock’s control. Could he be blamed for the various strikes that halted production (or the time lost when Michael Wilding took ill with pleurisy)? Absolutely not.

In any case, the problems that were actually created by the long takes took a lot of ingenuity to solve. Jack Cardiff would often discuss his work on the film, and his memories weren’t happy ones.

“I had been much more involved than usual in the production planning. Usually, I tried to dream up ideas for dramatic lighting, but on Capricorn, I had for the most part to work out how on earth I could possibly light so many sets at once! I worked more closely with the director than usual… Practically all of Hitchcock’s dramatic ideas were visual. If a cameraman is supposed to ‘paint with light,’ Hitchcock painted with a moving camera…

…We would rehearse one whole day and shoot the next day. Good recorded sound was impossible: the noise was indescribable. The electric crane lumbered through sets like a tank at Sebastopol, whole walls cracked open, furniture was whisked away by panting prop men and then frantically replaced in position as the crane made a return trip. The sound department did exceptionally well just to get a ‘guide track.’ … When we had made a successful ten minute take, everyone had to leave the studio except the sound people, Hitch, the script girl, and the cast, who would then go through the motions with dialogue without the camera. Amazingly, by sliding the sound tape backward and forward, it all came together.” –Jack Cardiff (as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks.’ 1999)

This strategy took the cooperation and agility of everyone on the set and this included the actors.

“…Required to light as many as six sets for a single take, English cinematographer Jack Cardiff attached lights to cranes, dollies, boom mikes and even crew members to make them mobile enough to light a shot and then get out of the way of the cumbersome crane as it followed the actors to another part of the set. ‘It was a fantastic sight,’ he wrote in an article for American Cinematographer, ‘to see a lamp silently glide in through a window, or even in through a hole in the wall, twist and tilt and pan in several directions, then just as mysteriously disappear again.’

…The Regency table that production designer Tom Morrahan built for Under Capricorn [were] cut into fourteen sections. It came apart to permit the camera to pass through. ‘The actors often helped,’ Cardiff writes, ‘and as the camera approached them seated nonchalantly enough, it looked positively weird to see them suddenly grab a section of the table, with a candle or plate of food fixed on it, and fall wildly out of picture … with their own parts of the table clutched in their hands.’ Mattresses were placed strategically behind the actors to catch them when they toppled backwards.

A bed was made for Ingrid Bergman that could be made to tilt up at a 45-degree angle, permitting the camera to shoot ‘down’ at the actress. Despite the contortions this setup imposed, Bergman succeeded in conveying so many conflicting emotions in one shot where, lying in bed, she realizes she is being systematically driven mad by a jealous servant, that Eric Rohmer wrote he would give all of Stromboli (1950), her first film with Roberto Rossellini, for that shot, if cinema were ‘only’ the art of plumbing the depths of the human soul.” –Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Needless to say, this kind of chaos can be a great handicap for actors trying to lose themselves in their role, and this eventually all became too much for Bergman and led to an infamous outburst which was discussed intimately in another letter written to Ruth Roberts towards the end of August, 1948:

Under Capricorn is half finished. The other day I burst. The camera was supposed to follow me around for eleven whole minutes—which meant we had to rehearse a whole day with the walls or furniture falling backwards as the camera went through—and of course that couldn’t be done fast enough. So I told Hitch off. How I hate this new technique of his. How I suffer and loathe every moment on the set. My two leading men, Michael Wilding and Joe Cotton, just sat there and said nothing—but I know they agree with me—and I said enough for the whole cast. Little Hitch just left. Never said a word. Just went home… oh dear…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Years later, Hitchcock himself remembered this exchange in his famous interview with François Truffaut:

“Ingrid Bergman got angry with me because of those long shots. And, since I never lose my temper and I hate arguments, I walked out of the room while her back was turned to me. I went home, and later on someone called to inform me that she hadn’t noticed my departure and was still complaining twenty minutes after I’d gone.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

She would try again while having drinks with the director and her two male leads. Somehow the conversation shifted to the long takes and she began complaining about the approach once again. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of turning away and he took this opportunity to leave her company. “That’s the trouble with Hitch,” the actress lamented, “he won’t fight!” This was true. Hitchcock loathed conflict and felt that drama should be reserved for the screen.

Even so, it should be made clear that Hitchcock didn’t always ignore Bergman’s protests. When it was possible, he preferred to placate her by offering some sort of compromise that would allow him to have his way while seeming to bend to her will.

“…They were shooting a drunk scene on the stairs and Bergman could not, or would not keep her marks. ‘Why should she anyway?’ she asked. She was supposed to be drunk. Couldn’t they just let her act the scene the way she felt it and follow her? This time, Hitch decided on a little demonstration, so he agreed to shoot the scene her way if she would play it his, and leave the decision of which version to use up to her. Once she saw the rushes of their respective versions she was in no doubt that Hitch’s was better and generously admitted as much.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, none of this had a lasting effect on their friendship, and Bergman would even admit that his approach had merit after seeing some of the footage. This admission first appeared in a follow-up letter:

“The picture is nearly finished. Some of those damned long scenes work out very well. In one nine-and-a-half-minute take, I talked all the time; the camera never left me and it worked fine. I must say much better than being cut up and edited.” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

This same sentiment would be repeated publicly in an essay written for the Toledo Blade that was published on August 27, 1949:

“…I know I put myself completely in [Hitchcock’s] hands. In the making of that picture Hitch was the boss—and, within the four walls of the sound stage, his word was law… Merely acting for ten minutes at a stretch is no problem to anyone with stage training, but doing a ten-minute tense emotional scene without a break for the screen is a different matter. Your positions and your movements must be correct to the fraction of an inch for camera focus. Walls and doors are constantly disappearing to make way for the camera as you move from room to room, Property men are crawling under foot removing obstacles in your path. And a Technicolor camera on a 30-foot crane is constantly pursuing you, coming in swiftly for a close-up and then sweeping away—all these make demands upon an actress that go far beyond the realms of mere acting. But a lot of people do exhausting work and are happy to do it because the results are gratifying. And that’s how it is with me. I have seen Under Capricorn and I know the experiment, if you care to call it that, has succeeded. Hitch sees, and commits to paper, every movement of the cast and camera six months before hand. He has the whole production in mind, from beginning to end, on the day the camera starts turning. And it is not only a general idea; it is the detailed development, with every camera angle and every movement, worked out to the last quarter.” –Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in Under Capricorn,’ Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Joseph Cotton was more worried about weaknesses within the script and his dialogue. As a matter of fact, he referred to the project as “Under Crapricorn” or “Under Cornycrap” (depending on which version of the story you want to believe) within earshot of his director and James Bridie (who had come to the set to adjust some of Cotton’s dialogue). Of course, it is quite possible that this comment was born out of his insecurities as an actor (he was never able to handle an authentic Irish lilt) and personal issues that were not at all related to the production as he was going through quite a lot in his personal life. The lengthy takes only exacerbated these simmering issues.

The director himself may have privately cursed his sequence shots after having his toe crushed by the camera and the crane that held it. Perhaps this was a negative omen.

Alfred Hitchcock and the mamoth camera during the production of 'Under Capricorn.'

Alfred Hitchcock and the mammoth Technicolor camera used for the production of ‘Under Capricorn.’

RELEASE, RECEPTION, & LEGACY

Under Capricorn became the first British feature to have a world première at Radio City Music Hall on September 08, 1949 and had already accumulated $1,875,000 by this time on account of its world distribution rights. On September 17th, The Gloucestershire Echo reported that the film had already accumulated $2,000,000 but is unclear as to whether this amount includes the amount earned by selling these territorial rights (it is likely that it does). Either way, it seems that the film’s New York engagements were reasonably successful as the film played to “capacity audiences” for four weeks if newspaper reports can be believed. One assumes that the film was given a substantial boost due to the names of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotton in the first week or two of release only to fall off in the following weeks. Whatever the case, Under Capricorn didn’t do enough business and was eventually repossessed by the bank that financed the project.

In The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Ken Mogg proposes that Ingrid Bergman’s presence in the film may have contributed to its eventual failure.

“…Then another setback occurred. The previous year, when Under Capricorn was being shot in England, Bergman had flown to Paris with her husband Petter Lindstrom to meet the Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini. The meeting lasted two hours. There and then, Bergman agreed to appear in Rossellini’s next film, and joined him in Stromboli just before Under Capricorn was released. In fact, it was also a rendezvous of another kind. News of their affair and the scandal it caused spread quickly. Catholic organizations in America reacted by banning the Hitchcock film, and many cinema owners were sufficiently outraged to follow suit. Hitchcock blamed Rossellini for what had happened and always remained bitter towards him…” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

This may have some merit. However, it seems likely that the film had probably already failed by this point (at least in America). It was March 14, 1950 when—at the height of the scandal—Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced the actress on the floor of the Senate calling her a “powerful influence for evil” who had instigated a violent “assault on the institution of marriage.”

“Mr. President, now that the stupid film about a pregnant woman and a volcano has exploited America with the usual finesse, to the mutual delight of RKO and the debased Rossellini, are we merely to yawn wearily, greatly relieved that this hideous thing is finished and then forget it? I hope not. A way must be found to protect the people in the future against that sort of gyp!” –Edwin C. Johnson

Of course, the senator had an agenda as he was proposing a censorship bill based on the “moral compasses” of those who work on any particular film. Such a bill sounds like an excuse to take away the inalienable rights of those who do not think or believe the same as Mr. Johnson and others like him, but this neither here nor there. The point is that this was months after the film’s initial release and it is doubtful that it had any effect on the film’s box-office earnings. It may have been a factor in the bank’s decision to repossess the picture but this is merely conjecture.

Critics and audiences tend to excoriate films that don’t meet their expectations and have difficulty judging them on their own merits, so Under Capricorn never really stood much of a chance. Alfred Hitchcock often made mention of this in his interviews.

“[The French critics admired Under Capricorn] because they looked at it for what it was and not what people expected. Here you get a Hitchcock picture which is a costume-picture and not approached from a thriller or excitement point of view until towards the end. I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, ‘We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.’ They went in expecting something and didn’t get it. That was the main fault with that picture… Also I used a fluid camera—mistakenly perhaps because it intensified the fact that it wasn’t a thriller—it flowed too easily.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This is probably a reference to William Brogdon’s awkwardly composed review for Variety:

Under Capricorn is fortunate in having a number of exploitable angles that can be used to parlay sturdy initial grosses. On the long pull, though, box-office will be spotty. Ingrid Bergman’s name will be a potent help and there are Technicolor, Joseph Cotton, and Alfred Hitchcock as added lures to get ticket sales going, even though it doesn’t appear likely [that] momentum will be maintained in the general market.

It is overlong and talky, with scant measure of the Hitchcock thriller tricks that could have sharpened general reception. A moody melodrama, full of long speeches and obvious movement, it uses up one hour and fifty-six minutes in developing a story that would have had more impact had not Hitchcock dwelt so tediously on expanded single scenes. He gives it some air of expectancy, but this flavor eventually becomes buried in the slow resolution of tangled human relationships into a happy ending… Miss Bergman’s scenes have their own particular brand of thespian magic. On their own, they glow, but when combined with the other lengthy sequences, the effect is dulled…

…In an opening sequence, Hitchcock plants the fact that Australian aborigines shrink the heads of their victims. One hundred minutes later he uses a mummified head as the single shocker in the footage. It will cause a round of horrified gasps. In between, he is just as obvious in the development, resulting in a regrettable lack of the anticipated Hitchcock subtleties… Margaret Leighton does the housekeeper, an unrelieved heavy so obvious that the other characters should have seen through her…

…Photography is another example of Hitchcock’s bent for an extremely mobile camera, playing long scenes in one take, but the moving camera is not a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper story-telling…” –William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Other critics shared Brogdon’s opinion and echoed his sentiments, and British critics followed suit. This review in The Times sums up the majority opinion:

“Miss Ingrid Bergman, Mr. Joseph Cotten, Mr. Michael Wilding, Miss Margaret Leighton, and, as director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock — there is clearly a team here, if not of all the talents, at least of a considerable number of them; and the question is, are they going to play well together? The answer, in the end, must regretfully be that they do not… and only occasionally is Mr. Hitchcock’s cunning and dramatic hand visible in the direction. The colour, especially while the camera is indoors, is admirable, but Under Capricorn lasts far too long and has far too many loose ends.” –The Times (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, October 05, 1949)

Many critics enjoyed the film but qualified their praise by pointing out that the material wasn’t up to the director’s usual standards. Usually, these reviews credited Hitchcock and his all-star troupe of actors for elevating the material. This review published in Harrison’s Reports is a case in point:

“Lavishly produced and photographed in Technicolor, this period melodrama with psychological overtones is an impressive entertainment of its kind. The story… is not unusual, nor are the characters, with the exception of the heroine, particularly sympathetic. Yet the acting of the entire cast is so competent that one’s interest is held well. Ingrid Bergman, as the wretched dipsomaniac who is victimized by a murderous housekeeper in love with her husband, comes through with another striking performance. The story is not without its weak points, particularly in that much of the footage is given more to talk than to movement, but Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial skill manages to overcome most of the script’s deficiencies by building up situations that thrill and hold the spectator in tense suspense…” –Harrison’s Reports (September 10, 1949)

Helen Williams wrote a similarly positive review for the Yorkshire Post:

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock has exploited to the full the dramatic possibilities of Under Capricorn, Helen Simpson’s romantic story of Australia in 1831… He is ably supported by a brilliant cast… The probabilities in this melodramatic tale may not bear analysis, but the excellence of the acting and Alfred Hitchcock’s direction carry the film to a triumphant close…” –Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Of course, the French critics were enamored with the film and would eventually vote Under Capricorn into a list of the ten greatest films ever made in Cahiers du Cinéma. It’s hardly one of the ten greatest films ever made. Frankly, it isn’t even one of the ten greatest films in Hitchcock’s filmography. Unlike Vertigo, few Hitchcock scholars try to elevate the film’s reputation in the public consciousness. Books covering the director’s filmography tend to see it as a forgettable blemish on the face of the director’s career, and this is actually a pretty fair assertion. Unfortunately, the scholars making these assertions don’t seem to have any real understanding as to why the film doesn’t measure up to his greatest work.

A perfect example of this appears in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock:

“…The impressive long takes that sometimes move from floor to floor, through lengthy corridors, and several rooms make this a sporadically beautiful movie, but the obsession for this technique also inspired lengthy monologues and dialogues that became perilously arid. Too often motionless, the camera seems indifferent, as if actors had to keep talking until the film ran out… This results in very talky motion picture-making without a prevalent viewpoint. The conversation simply isn’t engaging or suspenseful, and the lack of cutting short-circuits tension and necessary visual narrative rhythm.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Spoto makes the mistake of assuming that the lengthy monologues were inserted to cater to the director’s lengthy takes, but they really only complicated them. If one will think back to The Paradine Case (which was also adapted by James Bridie and then given another polish by Selznick), they will recall that the film had a similar tendency of employing longwinded monologues and constant dialogue. This is a characteristic of Bridies writing. Unlike Rope, Hitchcock wasn’t trying to get through an entire roll of film without cutting. He simply employed this technique when it best suited the material.

Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky similarly complained in their book about the film’s excessive dialogue but do not blame the sequence shot for this weakness:

“If [Under Capricorn] proved anything, it was that Hitchcock was literally making ‘talkies.’ Ostensibly [it] is a costume epic with a suspenseful side story. It was Hitchcock in a terrain in which he did not belong… The plot of the film was as uninspiring as [the] nearly two hours of dialogue.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Patrick Humphries doesn’t elaborate on the film’s weaknesses, but he makes it clear that his opinion follows suit:

“At best Under Capricorn is an unholy cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca, with the three witches from Macbeth thrown into the kitchen for good measure. At its worst, it is a turgid historical potboiler.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Stephen Whitty goes even further in his condemnation of the film:

“…The production design is cheap and unconvincing—the Flusky mansion a more-than-usually obvious matte painting, the waterfront and pier a cramped mock-up—and although Bergman is given a nice, dramatic entrance, there’s no standout sequence or memorable moment. It’s the sort of picture that Hitchcock always said he hated—pictures of people talking—and it marks the lowest point in a dull period of halfhearted efforts that stretched from The Paradine Case to Stage Fright.” –Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Surprisingly, Ken Mogg seemed to disagree in his analysis of the film and gives it his enthusiastic praise:

Under Capricorn is one of several Hitchcock films of the late 1940s and 1950s that pleased few people at the time, but now seem full of interest… The result is a moody, stylized film where people talk endlessly while their real points stay unspoken. A key line is given to Flusky, who complains about the unfeeling legal process, which goes ‘on and on and on.’ The line is significant because beyond all the legality—and the talk—lies hope of something else, a return to a lost paradise. Under Capricorn may be Hitchcock’s finest film to explore that theme… [It] is more than a key Hitchcock film: it is one of his most lovely pictures. Its fluid design suggests life itself, sometimes wasting, sometimes being savored.” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

The truth—as is often the case—lies somewhere between these two extremes. Some films are neither brilliant nor terrible, but Under Capricorn was certainly a failure in the mind of its director, and Hitchcock’s tendency to adopt the prevailing critical opinion of his films has poisoned objective reevaluation.

FINAL ANALYSIS

“I made Under Capricorn because I wanted to apply the concepts of Rope to a different sort of story to see what that would yield.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Obviously, many scholars seem to believe that the failure of Under Capricorn was due to the fact that Hitchcock insisted on carrying over the sequence shots he utilized in Rope, and these people aren’t thinking past the semi-formed opinions of other critics that plagued newspapers and magazines in 1948 when the film was released. The fact is that his approach to Under Capricorn is fundamentally different than the technique used in Rope, because: a.) This film wasn’t shot to look as if it was shot in real time, b.) Under Capricorn includes traditional cutting in conjunction with sequence shots while Rope consists only of sequence shots, and c.) it doesn’t make any effort to camouflage the film’s edits.

In short, the technique used in Capricorn is a refinement of the experiment that he used for Rope. He is searching for the proper equilibrium between two opposing techniques and some of the director’s future work proves that he found it (even if it wasn’t perfected in this particular film). Hitchcock realized that there were flaws in his approach to Rope and is testing the sequence shot as an added tool to use in conjunction with other techniques. One can see a difference in his aesthetic before he made the two Transatlantic films and those that he made after them. He grew from these experiments and never completely abandoned the sequence shot. He confessed that he still admired the technique in a 1955 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma and this won’t come as a surprise to those who truly pay attention to his later work.

“Certain people thought it was a mistake and that it wasn’t truly cinema. Yet it’s pure cinema because you must do the editing in your head in advance. Then the movement between the scenes is made continuous by the movement of the actors, not of the camera alone, but of the actors and the camera together. Thus the camera roams about while the actors change positions, and together they establish various framed compositions. In my opinion, it’s a purer cinema but not enough people agreed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

This is an important point that seems to be lost on most critics and scholars. Hitchcock incorporates a wide array of shots into these long takes. The wide master, the two shot, the close-up, the extreme close-up, and the insert shot are all utilized. It isn’t as if he were simply pointing the camera at the actors and allowing the scenes to play out as if this were a play. What’s more, his use of this technique adds power to a number of the film’s traditional edits.

Some of the cuts in Under Capricorn are dramatic solely because they happen to follow a sequence shot. Take, for example, Bergman’s introduction. We follow Adare as he meets other guests after arriving at the party, Flusky gives instructions to Milly regarding Mrs. Flusky (which makes the viewer curious about her), and the men finally sit down to enjoy a meal and say grace. Soon the guests notice something that is happening just outside the scope of the frame, and Flusky notices their attention and nervously begins turning his head to see what has captured their gaze. We then cut to Bergman’s bare feet as they move into the room and carry us back to Sam Flusky as she places her hand on his shoulders. Finally, we move to the intoxicated face of Ingrid Bergman. It’s quite the introduction.

Hitchcock never abandons his devotion to the visual in this experiment, he simply expands and adds to the language of the medium. If Under Capricorn fails, it is due to the weak script and an arguably less interesting subject. It does not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best films—or even his second-tier titles—but it was an essential phase in his artistic evolution. What’s more, it isn’t any worse than a number of other overwrought and syrupy costume melodramas being made at around that time. One wonders if the film wouldn’t have a different reputation if another director’s name were written on it.

SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino houses their Blu-ray in a standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that offers a choice of film related artwork.

Reverse Cover Artwork

The default art is taken from the film’s original American One Sheet while a more lurid foreign poster was used for the reverse as an alternative. The American one sheet is the superior choice.

Menu

In fact, Kino must agree with us on this point since it is this artwork that has been carried over for the disc’s static menu.

SS02

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s 4K restoration transfer is a huge improvement over the previous DVD editions of the film, and the improvement isn’t merely due to the added resolution. However, it must be said that the final result is less that completely satisfying and will probably disappoint some collectors. This doesn’t seem to be the fault of the restoration or the transfer but is instead the unfortunate symptom of the ravages of time. Damage and debris is evident, but the most significant problem here stems from the various color elements in the Technicolor print which has resulted in slight haloing. Luckily, this never becomes distracting. In fact, most people won’t notice it and will instead pick up on the obvious improvement over earlier transfers in terms of both vibrancy and clarity. Motion is also greatly improved upon here (something especially important considering the mobile nature of the image). Best of all, we get quite a bit more information in the frame in this new transfer. This is likely the best this film is going to look on home video at this point.

SS03

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio is an admirable representation of the film’s original source elements. It doesn’t offer the dynamic sonic experience one expects from more recent films, but no one should really expect this. The film’s dialogue is well prioritized and clearly rendered and the music is given adequate room to breathe thanks to the high definition transfer. Fans should be pleased.

SS04

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger has provided commentaries for a wide variety of films in recent years. As editor-in-chief for Diabolique magazine, she has a reasonably deep well of general knowledge to aid her in this track—but those expecting any in-depth information will be somewhat disappointed. Some of her analysis is interesting enough to keep the listener engaged, but it isn’t an especially focused discussion about the film (which she insists is underrated). She has a tendency to overlook important points and there are a few questionable statements along the way. This is par for the course with third-party “scholarly commentaries.” It is nice that she has included some general information about the careers of various cast and crew, and this is really the best reason to give the track a listen.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon (Audio) – (12:23)

Absolutely essential is this excerpt from Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous interview with François Truffaut as it finds the director speaking candidly about Under Capricorn. Those who have already read the book won’t learn anything, but it is nice to hear the director discussing this often overlooked film. It is illustrated with a still photograph of the two filmmakers that was taken during the interview sessions in 1963.

A Cinema of Signs: Chabrol on Hitchcock – (26:42)

The disc’s best supplement is probably this half-hour program that finds Claude Chabrol discussing a variety of Hitchcock related topics, including Cahiers du Cinéma’s infamous Hitchcock issue that would help change critical opinion of Hitchcock’s work, the equally important book that he penned with Éric Rohmer (Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films), an analysis of a scene from Under Capricorn (which was taken from the text of this book), Truffaut’s book-length interview Hitchcock, and his own analysis of scenes from Marnie and Frenzy. Fans will find this material fascinating even if they find themselves in disagreement. It offers food for thought and is a welcome addition to Kino’s package.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)

While trailers for other Hitchcock titles are much more interesting and original than the rather standard approach used to market Under Capricorn, it is certainly nice to have the trailer for this film finally available on home video.

We are also given a number of other trailers, including one for Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), Bergman’s Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), Cotton’s A Portrait of Jennie (1948), and a remake of The Lodger (1944).

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Final Words:

“If I seem doomed to make only one type of picture, the movie audience is responsible. People go to one of my films expecting a thriller, and they aren’t satisfied until the thrill turns up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

This quote frames our parting thoughts admirably. Those who expect a typical Hitchcockian suspense story are bound to be disappointed. Under Capricorn is probably one of the director’s five weakest American films but it certainly wasn’t a waste of his time. In fact, it was an extremely important step in Alfred Hitchcock’s creative evolution.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes the best transfer of the film currently available on home video and a very nice supplemental package.

Review by: Devon Powell

One Sheet

Source Material:

Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in ‘Under Capricorn, Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Staff Writer (The Times, August 31, 1949)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, September 10, 1949)

William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Staff Writer (Gloucestershire Echo, September 17, 1949)

Staff Writer (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, The Times, October 05, 1949)

Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Staff Writer (Amusements: Ingrid Bergman in Australian Romance, Western Morning News, February 14, 1950)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, February 28, 1950)

D.J. (Derby Daily Telegraph, March 14, 1950)

David Brady (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Bryan Forbes (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

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

Michael Haley (The Alfred Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

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

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

Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

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

Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Blu-ray Review: 78/52 – Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Shout Factory

Release Date: February 27, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:31:46

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English, Spanish

Ratio: 1.78:1

Note: This release comes with a DVD disc that is housed in the same case.

Poster

“Of course, you can’t talk about the shower scene without talking about Psycho, and you can’t talk about Psycho without talking about Hitchcock, and you can’t talk about Hitchcock without talking about other films that influenced him, or films that he influenced, and so on. But everything in 78/52 was very carefully designed to be always, always, always about the shower scene.” -Alexandre O. Philippe (Michael Gingold, Rue-Morgue.com, October 18, 2017)

A lot of people may be asking themselves why anyone would devote a ninety-minute documentary to a single scene, but ninety minutes wasn’t nearly enough to do a proper job if Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene is any indication. The shower scene is one of the most audacious scenes in cinema history, and it affected the viewer like a surprise punch to the solar plexus without infuriating them. That takes some doing. Unfortunately, the scene (and in fact the entirety of Psycho) has been parodied, ripped-off, discussed, analyzed, and even re-made so many times at this point that it is probably impossible for the majority of people to experience the scene in that same manner any longer.

In any case, the shower scene deserves to be studied. It is a remarkable moment in a terrific film. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene attempts to dissect the reasons this influential scene was so effective. Philippe should certainly be applauded for his effort, but the end result doesn’t quite meet these intentions. The film’s first misstep is the ham-handed re-enactment of Marion Crane’s fateful drive to the Bates Motel. It wasn’t at all necessary and merely serves to distract and irritate those who love the film. However, the most discouraging aspect of this documentary is that it never rises above what people might find in a well-made Blu-ray supplement. It even carries a number of the same flaws—and the most notable of these flaws concerns some of the interview participants. For example, one would assume that a film seeking to dissect one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most infamous scenes would include a greater pool of legitimate authorities on either Hitchcock or cinema in general. The presence of Stephen Rebello, Bill Krohn, David Thomson, and Peter Bogdanovich was probably supposed to fulfill this requirement, but none of these people are prominently featured in the film (although Rebello fares better than the others). Worse, they don’t provide very much insight during the few moments that they are actually featured. Some might point out that Guillermo del Toro can be seen as an authority on Hitchcock (and his contribution is more than welcome).

Unfortunately, competent theorists are buried by participants that have absolutely no business being in the film at all. Such individuals pollute the entire duration of 78/52, and few of them actually add anything pertinent about the subject at hand. For example: Could someone please explain why Elijah Wood, Illeana Douglas, and Eli Roth are featured in the film? How could any of these people be considered an authority on Alfred Hitchcock? Elijah Wood doesn’t even seem to have seen North by Northwest! He looks completely lost when the film is mentioned and later seems surprised to learn about the film’s infamous final shot. Eli Roth throws Hitchcock’s name around quite a bit in his publicity interviews and commentary tracks, but nothing in his films suggest that he has learned anything from him (except perhaps on the most superficial level). The inclusion of such individuals only serve to remind the audience that the statements made throughout the piece can’t be taken seriously. Their very presence undermines the validity of what is good in the film (and it does have its virtues).

Alexandre O. Philippe - Director

Alexandre O. Philippe directed 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene.

Marli Renfro’s participation is especially appreciated. Her voice is one that has largely been excluded from previous documentaries about Psycho. She recalls what it was like to double for Janet Leigh in the shower scene, and one imagines that some of her recollections will be new discoveries for many viewers. Leigh discusses the scene in some very interesting archival footage from Laurent Bouzereau’s The Making of ‘Psycho, and Tere Carrubba, Jamie Leigh Curtis, and Oz Perkins are also on hand (although their contributions are nominal).

A large number of contemporary filmmakers have been brought in with somewhat mixed results. Justin Benson, for example, doesn’t seem to bring much more than snarky comments about the film to the table, while some of Bob Murawski’s valuable comments are undermined by his tendency to keep criticizing the shape of Mrs. Bates’ head. Murawski is an editor that has worked on a number of films (including a good number of Sam Raimi titles) and one can understand his presence, but it is Walter Murch’s contribution that holds the most promise. Oddly enough,  Amy E. Duddleston’s discussion about trying to replicate the shower scene in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake (which this reviewer loathes) is rather interesting as she admits that they were never able to make it work.

Unfortunately, the film’s better elements are buried by too many inappropriate participants, and this results in a documentary that isn’t nearly as focused as the premise promises. Audiences are merely given an abundance of conjecture that is rarely supported by insightful analysis (and they only skim the surface when any effort is actually made). It is an extremely engaging documentary, but the reason for this has more to do with the film being discussed than with the thrill of receiving any truly revelatory insight into the scene that is supposed to be dissected.

One Sheet

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The two discs are protected in a standard Blu-ray case with related artwork that is reasonably attractive.

The menu also utilizes this artwork and is accompanied by the sound of faint shower water. Overall, it is an above average presentation for a documentary film.

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

As is usual with documentary films that contain numerous archival elements, the quality of the film’s image fluctuates a great deal depending on the source being used at any given moment. The transfer is certainly solid and newly shot footage always displays an impressive amount of fine detail. All other elements are well rendered as well and are beyond criticism. However, the archival elements are all over the place and some of the footage seems to be sampled from up-scaled standard definition sources (although, this isn’t necessarily the case). Obviously, documentary filmmakers must make do with the materials that they are allowed to use. In any case, the quality falls in line with what one has come to expect from such productions.

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio options are both strong options with the 5.1 mix obviously offering a slightly more dynamic experience. Obviously, the dialogue driven nature of the film should limit the viewer’s sonic expectations, but music and sound effects do expand the sound design quite a bit. It all sounds very good. The dialogue is clean and intelligible, the music and effects have room to breathe, and everything is mixed for maximum impact.

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Extended Interview with Walter Murch – (55:28)

The inclusion of this lengthy interview adds a bit of legitimacy to the disc. Murch has made a name for himself as an editor and as a sound editor. It is in this capacity that he gives a sort of examination of the shower scene, but he takes it further and actually goes into theories about how the viewer processes images. Obviously, this infuences his own personal approach to editing—even though the collision montage in Psycho purposly goes against this in order to cause slight disorientation in the audience.

Extended Interview with Guillermo Del Toro – (22:13)

It is always interesting to hear Guillermo Del Toro discuss cinema. He is the perfect blend of scholar and fanboy (not to mention the fact that he is a talented filmmaker in his own right). His discourse may be largely theoretical but it is always interesting (despite the fact that one doesn’t always agree with his comments). As with the interview with Walter Murch, this footage was obviously shot to be utilized in the film itself and is therefore presented in black and white.

“Stabbing Melons” with Director Alexandre O. Philippe – (02:52)

It’s difficult to discern why this footage was included on the disc as it doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the proceedings. The viewer is shown a small crew as they set up tables of melons and shoot them (some of the footage being shot is in the film). They mic the melons and proceed to stab them. Finally, the casaba melon used by Alfred Hitchcock is brought out to recreate the sound of the knife cutting into Marion Crane’s flesh.

Theatrical Trailer – (01:23)

IFC took a bit of a risk using so much of the newly shot “Psycho” footage in their trailer for the film. One can imagine a select portion of the intended audience cringing and being turned off by the film completely. However, the moody atmosphere of the images certainly raises a certain amount of interest.

Final Words:

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene is fun to watch, but it doesn’t really add anything revelatory to our understanding of the film (or of the scene in question). There is an excellent “making of” documentary included on the various Psycho Blu-ray releases that would probably make better use of the viewer’s time. However, anyone interested in the film will find it worth seeing if they happen to get the opportunity. Just don’t shell out any money for the privilege.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Alfred Hitchcock – The Ultimate Collection

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: October 17, 2017

Region: Region A

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

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

Saboteur

Shadow of a Doubt

Rope

Rear Window

The Trouble with Harry

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Psycho

The Birds

Marnie

Torn Curtain

Topaz

Frenzy

Family Plot

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

The Best of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’

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

Revenge (Season 1, Episode 1)

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

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

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

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

Lamb to the Slaughter (Season 3, Episode 28)

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

Poison (Season 4, Episode 1)

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

Arthur (Season 5, Episode 1)

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

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

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

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

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

Special Features:

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

The Best of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’

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

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

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

Three Wives Too Many (Season 2, Episode 12)

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

Death Scene (Season 3, Episode 20)

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

Special Features:

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

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

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

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

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

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

The Ultimate Collection

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

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

Final Words:

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Rebecca – The Criterion Collection

Spine #135

Blu-ray Cover (No Sticker)

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 05, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 02:10:40

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.69 Mbps

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

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

Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS01

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

Menu

Menu 2

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

SS02

Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

SS03

Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

SS04

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Disc One

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Leonard J. Leff

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

Isolated Music and Effects Track

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

The Making of Rebecca – (28:02)

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

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

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

Theatrical Re-release Trailer – (02:23)

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

Disc Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Tests:

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

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

Joan Fontaine – (07:57)

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

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

Anne Baxter – (11:48)

Margaret Sullavan – (07:52)

Loretta Young – (04:45)

Hair and Makeup Tests – (03:14)

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

Costume Tests – (02:57)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHAT WASN’T INCLUDED?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

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Review by: Devon Powell