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

Spine #523

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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 06, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 1:35:19

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

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

title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Special Features:

2 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

one-sheet

Source Material:

Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

Hedda Hopper (Los Angeles Times)

Uncredited Staff (Variety, February 05, 1941)

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

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

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Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Psycho IV: The Beginning

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Distributor: Shout Factory

Release Date: August 23, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 96 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.78:1

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

Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erection Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Gallery – (HD) – (06:06)

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

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Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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 Source Material:

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

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

Mick Garris (Trailers from Hell, 2013)

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

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho & The Birds

PSYCHO - POPART

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. This exact same transfer is being released with the same supplemental features in this new Pop Art edition of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition

THE BIRDS - POPART

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The Birds (1963) is also being honored with a new Pop Art edition of the film that includes the same transfer with the same supplemental features available on Universal’s previous release of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

Blu-ray Review: Classic Hitchcock – The Criterion Collection

Boxed Set

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: December 15, 2015

Region: Region A

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

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

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934):

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

The 39 Steps (1935):

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

The Lady Vanishes (1938):

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

Foreign Correspondent (1940):

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

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

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

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

Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeline Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

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

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

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

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

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

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

Screenshot 6

Final Words:

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

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

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

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Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

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

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

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

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

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

Blu-ray Review: Family Plot

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 03, 2013

Region: Region A

Length: 02:00:04

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

01 - Title

“I didn’t say, ‘I’d like to do a kidnapping film.’ What interested me about a story like Family Plot was that it was two sides of a triangle meeting at a certain point… That was the shape of the film, and the climax — the apex came when these two totally unrelated elements came together. And they came together just as the leading lady rings the front door bell of the house which contains a kidnapped bishop. And that’s what appealed to me was the structure of this story, and the kidnapping and all those elements were part of it but certainly no great inspiration to me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

It is interesting that Alfred Hitchcock would follow the dark and cynical Frenzy with the light and whimsical Family Plot. While it is true that there is a fair amount of cynicism in Family Plot, it is filtered through a rather optimistic lens. This is especially true when one compares it with Alfred Hitchcock’s source of inspiration for the film. The script was adapted from Victor Canning’s “The Rainbird Pattern,” but the differences between the novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film go far beyond any changes that were made to the plot (and there were many). The tone of the novel was dark and pessimistic about much more than the characters and situations described in Canning’s story. Practically every character is met with a bitter end. It was much more in keeping with the tone of Frenzy. One can only speculate as to the director’s reasoning behind turning the film into a light entertainment, but I believe that it indicates a level of hope possessed by the 76 year old Hitchcock… or perhaps I merely hope that this is what it represents.

Considering that his intention was to create a much lighter entertainment, it seems somewhat unusual that he should ask his former Frenzy collaborator to help him turn his ideas for his new project into a screenplay.

“After deciding on The Rainbird Pattern, the director offered the script assignment to Anthony Shaffer, who read the book but balked at ‘the sort of version that Hitch was describing – a sort of light, Noel Coward – Madame Arcati thing with Margaret Rutherford.’ … Shaffer agreed to think about it, but he had flashed the wrong signals, and Hitchcock phoned him a week later to say that his agent had made excessive demands. Shaffer felt Hitchcock was dissembling in order to avoid later confrontation over his approach.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Hitchcock rebounded from Shaffer with ease, and decided to contact a more appropriate collaborator: Ernest Lehman. It isn’t difficult to follow his train of thought. After all, Lehman had worked on North by Northwest with the director.

“I felt very comfortable being back with him. However, before long I realized that our relationship was quite different. Many years had passed. We had both had successes and failures. We were different people now.” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Despite the changes in both men, Alfred Hitchcock’s working method was very much the same as it had been while the two men were writing North by Northwest.

“The first forty-five minutes… are always warm up time, during which neither of you would dare commit the gross unpardonable sin of mentioning the work at hand. There are more attractive matters to be discussed first… How much more pleasurable [was this conversation], than to have to sit there, sometimes in terribly long silences, trying to devise ‘Hitchcockian’ methods of extricating fictional characters from the corners into which you painted them the day before.’ –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

It was usually Lehman that launched the conversation into writing-mode, and the men would trade ideas for whatever script problems that they were facing on that particular day (with Hitchcock having final say). When Lehman made suggestions of his own, it created a different kind of suspense for the writer.

“…You begin to talk, and he watches you, and he listens, and you watch him carefully, and you continue, and finally you’ve said it all. And then [Hitchcock] does one of several things. His face lights up with enthusiasm. Good sign. Or his face remains unchanged. Question mark. Or he says absolutely nothing about what you have just told him, and talks about another aspect of the picture. Pocket veto. Or he looks at you with great sympathy, and says, ‘But Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.’” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Both men had rather robust egos. Lehman really didn’t like being subordinate to Alfred Hitchcock, and preferred to write things the way that he wanted to write them. However, when one writes with Hitchcock it is understood that they are there to write what he tells them to write.

“‘I found myself refusing to accept Hitch’s ideas (if I thought they were wrong),’ Lehman recalled later, ‘merely because those ideas were coming from a legendary figure.’ The writer had grown weary of Hitchcock overanalysing everything, and he simply wanted the go-ahead to finish. The silences between them grew longer, the disagreements awkward…

…Privately Hitchcock had decided that Lehman was ‘a very nervous and edgy sort of man’ who was deliberately giving him ‘a rather difficult time,’ as he complained in a letter to Michael Balcon in England. When he suffered a heart attack in September, Hitchcock went do far as to blame the episode (only half kiddingly, it seems) on the constant ‘nervous state’ induced by his arguments with Lehman.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Whether not the tense relationship between these two men actually had an impact on the final script is up for debate, but there it seems to have left its mark on the film’s infamous ending.

“…Again Lehman toyed from time to time with the idea of resigning, and was persuaded back, grumbling but still fascinated. He ended incredulous at all the agony which had gone into the creation of such a slight picture, and amazed that so little of it showed. Finally, his main difference of opinion with Hitchcock was over the ending, which Hitch eventually wrote himself and submitted to Lehman, listened to his objections (mainly that the medium is shown throughout to be a fake, so to suggest that maybe she has a touch of psychic power is disturbingly inconsistent), discussed his alternate solutions, and then went right ahead and used his own version.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Although, Hitchcock used the ending that he had written without Lehman, the writer’s issues were addressed in post-production.

“… [This] led to some redubbing in the New Year when the Hitchcock’s returned from their annual pilgrimage to St. Moritz. On a shot of Adamson’s back as he carries the drugged Blanche to captivity after she has tumbled to his true identity was dubbed a line referring to the diamond in the chandelier (not in the shooting script), which could just possibly explain away Blanche’s final revelation – maybe she was not completely unconscious at the time or heard the remark unawares. When Ernest Lehman saw the film he was unhappy with the line, and suggested something less contrived–sounding, while admitting that any line at this point was necessary contrivance. The line was re-dubbed using one of Lehman’s suggestions…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Of course, writing Alfred Hitchcock’s “53rd feature” was the easy part (regardless of what the director might say in publicity interviews). The seventies were a challenging decade for the director, and both he and Alma suffered quite a few health related scares. He was in the midst of several of these scares while preparing Family Plot (which was entitled Deceit during the film’s production).

“…Hitch had a succession of health problems that put him in and out of the hospital for most of the autumn –first, he had a heart pacer fitted, which he delights to show with some gruesome details of the surgical process involved. Then, as a result of a bad reaction to the antibiotics he was given, he got colitis, and once over that he had a kidney stone removed…

…By December 1974, when I saw him again, the production was moving toward its final stages of preparedness. The script was pretty well fixed, for the moment (the final production script bears evidence of some intensive final polishing around the end of March and the beginning of April 1975, but nearly all in matters of detail)…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Hitchcock’s health would have a large impact on how the film would be shot. The director had originally planned quite a bit of location shooting, but it became obvious to everyone that the production would have to be tied to the studio. Of course, there were a few noteworthy exceptions.

“…The image of Grace Cathedral remained for the Bishop’s kidnapping, and with it some other unobtrusively San Francisco locations for the houses of various characters. At one time Hitch even considered doing the cathedral sequence in the studio, on the principal that all he really needed was one column and the rest could be matted in. But he discovered that in the studio the sequence would cost $200,000, so he decided he might as well go on location, and while he was there himself shoot the other San Francisco exteriors, which had formerly been assigned to the second unit.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Special preparations were taken by the studio to ensure that Hitchcock could get around with relative ease. Thom Mount elaborated on some of the special measures that were taken to writer, Charlotte Chandler.

“…Mr. Hitchcock had a very hard time standing up for any lengthy period of time. Walking was not his strong suit by that time, so we took an old Cadillac convertible and a welding torch, and we cut the sides, and the back off of it, fitted a flat platform on the back of the Cadillac, and on that flat platform we put a chair for a cinematographer, as if it were a crane that was mounted on a hydraulic lift. Mr. Hitchcock would sit in the chair and move himself around in any direction and see in all directions. The Cadillac was moved all around the soundstage, even though they were interiors, just backing it into place, wherever it needed to be. And so Mr. Hitchcock could move around” –Thom Mount (as quoted by Charlotte Chandler in “It’s Only A Movie,” 2006)

"I never realized I would be working so hard at this age." –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

“I never realized I would be working so hard at this age.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

There were other issues to consider as well. Hitchcock took special care to go over his visual plans with his storyboard artist, Tom Wright. This was particularly true of the car “chase sequence,” because Hitchcock’s health issues would make it impossible to be present during some of the shooting of this particular sequence. It was necessary for the storyboards to be an exact replica of his vision, because the second unit would need them to follow Hitchcock’s design down to the last detail.

Even with these health issues as a handicap, the old master seemed sharp as a tack mentally. He even seemed maintain his equanimity while shooting the location footage at Grace Cathedral.

“The extras, as is the way with extras, want to act, to make the most of their few seconds [of] screen time with elaborate reactions, and dare to attempt discussion of motivation with the director… At one point, when the abduction of the Bishop is actually taking place, some extras at the back ask him to describe what is happening so that they will know how to react. ‘Can you see what’s happening?’ No. ‘Then there you are. You can’t see what’s happening, you just have a vague idea that something is. You don’t have to react beyond a slight show of curiosity.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Crowd scenes are always difficult, and to be able to direct a large number of people in a relatively short period of time takes more than just a small amount of mental stamina. This was always one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most accessible tools. Unfortunately, the production was not without a reasonable amount of stress, and there are certain problems that take more than mental prowess. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made.

“Shortly after the successful location shooting in San Francisco some unexpected troubles arose with the shooting, acknowledged in a brief press announcement dated 13 June which stated that the character portrayed by Roy Thinnes had ‘undergone a conceptual change calling for a new character concept’ to be played by William Devane… Stories vary as to what lay behind this change, which necessitated reshooting and put the film, up to then a few days ahead of schedule, rather behind. (It was originally scheduled to take fifty-eight days to shoot, and the budget envisaged was a modest three and a half million, of which Hitch wryly remarked, about $550,000 would go on fringe benefits of various kinds that never show on the screen.)” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

One of the stories as to the reason that Thinnes had been re-cast with Devane was published on June 18, 1975 in Variety (a source that isn’t always particularly accurate). According to Variety, “Alfred Hitchcock and Roy Thinnes disagreed on the interpretation of the young actor’s role in Deceit after a scene in San Francisco… Actor’s don’t tell Hitch; he tells them.” However, the Athens News Courier would quote Hitchcock giving a less dramatic reason for the actor’s replacement in an article published on June 1, 1976: “That came from miscasting on my part. He didn’t have a sinister quality.”

“…Given Hitch’s absolute and abiding horror of scenes and confrontations, it seems very unlikely that [a confrontation with Thinnes about the character] occurred, but rather that Hitch put into practice his often stated principal that if he found he was not getting what he wanted from an actor his natural way of dealing with the situation would be to pay the actor off and start again with someone else. A spectator did describe to me the nearest thing to a confrontation when Roy Thinnes cornered Hitch at his regular table at Chasens’ during one of his regular Thursday dinners to ask him in some distress, ‘why?’ Hitch, equally distressed, just kept saying, ‘but you were too nice for the role, too nice.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, Hitchcock was particularly fond of both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern. He allowed both actors a certain amount of freedom to interpret their characters, and his relationship with both of these actors was one of genuine affection based on mutual admiration and respect.

“I’ve made thirty films, and he’s the best director I’ve ever worked for. He’s also the most entertaining man, the best actor. He’s got style and personality, and he’s full of stories. Of course, people say he allows no freedom to actors. But there’s all the freedom in the world once you understand the ground rules. He explains what the shot is supposed to say and what you’re supposed to do. Then you give it! If you couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t be working for him in the first place. Nothing is left to chance except the actor’s improvisation. He’s concerned that the actor keep it fresh, alive, [and] new. He wants each shot to entertain him – then he knows the audience will be entertained.” – Bruce Dern (as quoted by Donald Spoto in “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

When the picture wrapped on the 18th of August, the production was only thirteen days over schedule. Luckily, the title was changed from Deceit to Family Plot at some point during the film’s creation. The latter title was suggested by someone in Universal’s publicity department after Hitchcock had expressed his dissatisfaction with the original title. After making a market inquiry into the effectiveness of Deceit as a possible title, Hitchcock’s instinct was proven accurate. It didn’t seem to be an effective title for this particular film.

“I felt the word ‘Deceit’ suggested a bedroom farce. It suggested – It was rather a mild word. It didn’t carry any meaning with it. Pictorially, when one began to think about the word, ‘Deceit,’ there you had the woman in bed, the husband entering the bedroom, and the lover secreted behind the curtain… and that to me epitomized the word ‘Deceit.’ It wasn’t good, I didn’t think.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock never really recovered from his falling out with Bernard Herrmann, and it was rather late in the post production process when John Williams was finally asked to provide a score for the film.

“Mr. Hitchcock had his office here at Universal Studios. And so he apparently needed a composer for this Family Plot, and the executive those years in charge of music was a gentleman called Harry Garfield. So, it was Harry Garfield who recommended me as a newcomer, just having done Jaws, a very successful film, to Mr. Hitchcock. And I went to see him at his office, and we had lunch and had a chat and I left not knowing if he would engage me to do this or not. Then I got a call from Mr. Garfield the next day. It said, Hitchcock, yes, he would like you to do the score.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

The composer found the experience of working with Alfred Hitchcock instructive, and is valuable as evidence against the insane claim that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have an ear for music. He was in fact very aware of how different kinds of music altered a scene’s tone. He was also very aware of the effect that the absence of music could have upon the audience.

“I could tell you one little anecdote, also, about a scene in the film where we didn’t have a disagreement about where the music should play but a discussion. There was a room where the criminal had been, and the camera pans to the window, which is open. And the curtains blow in the breeze, and this reveal of the camera tells us the criminal has escaped.

But the orchestra was playing to drive the energy to people to go to discover where the criminal is. Driving, driving, driving… through the point where the camera goes through the door. And I continued the music when the camera panned to the window, playing it more. And he said, “You know, if you stop the music when the camera pans to the window, “the silence will tell us that it’s empty — he’s gone — more emphatically, more powerfully than any musical phrase.” And, of course, just the absence of music at that point… It was a wonderful lesson, really, in where to arrange the parts of the music in any film, which we call “spotting,” incidentally. That is to say, the spots are where the music is.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”  Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”  -Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”
Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”
-Family Plot Press Conference (March 23rd, 1976)

When the film debuted on March 18, 1976 for a University of Sothern California preview audience, Hitchcock was quite happy with the student audience’s enthusiastic reaction. The director’s optimism cemented when Family Plot officially premièred opened at the benefit opening of ‘Filmex’ (Los Angeles International Film Festival) on March 21, 1976. The reaction here was also quite enthusiastic, and it looked like the director might have a hit on his hands.

Of course, an early review that was published in Variety on the December 31, 1975 had probably already spearheaded his optimum several months before the film was even released.

Family Plot is a dazzling achievement for Alfred Hitchcock masterfully controlling shifts from comedy to drama throughout a highly complex plot. Witty screenplay, transplanting Victor Canning’s British novel, The Rainbird Pattern, to a California setting, is a model of construction, and the cast is uniformly superb.

Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris are the couple who receive primary attention, a cabbie and a phony psychic trying to find the long-lost heir to the Rainbird fortune.

Dern is a more than slightly absurd figure, oddly appealing; Harris is sensational.

William Devane takes a high place in the roster of Hitchcockian rogues, while Karen Black, gives a deep resonance to her relationship with the mercurial Devane.” –Variety (December 31, 1975)

Vincent Canby also wrote an affectionate review for the New York Times, following the film’s release to the public.

“Not since To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry has Alfred Hitchcock been in such benign good humor as he is in Family Plot, the old master’s 56th feature since he began directing films in 1922.

Family Plot, which opened at theaters all over town yesterday, is a witty, relaxed lark. It’s a movie to raise your spirits even as it dabbles in phony ones, especially those called forth by Blanche (Barbara Harris), a sweet, pretty, totally fraudulent Los Angeles medium, who nearly wrecks her vocal cords when possessed by a control whose voice sounds like Sidney Greenstreet’s.

But Family Plot isn’t about anything as esoteric as spiritualism and its sometimes wayward votaries. It’s about good, old-fashioned greed, or, how to work very, very hard in order to make your fortune illegally. It’s one of the many invigorating ironies of Family Plot that its con people are so obsessed by their criminal pursuits they never realize the easier way would probably be the lawful one. Then, of course, there would be no plot, and a high regard for plot is one of the distinguishing joys of both Hitchcock and this new film…

…Blanche and Lumley, merged, make a single bird-brain, but one whom heaven protects and fortune smiles on. As performed by Miss Harris and Mr. Dern, they are two of the most appealing would-be rascals that Hitchcock had even given us. For that matter so are Adamson and Fran (she has no last name, which leaves her matrimonial state in Old World, gentlemanly doubt). Though Adamson is portrayed as being perfectly willing to murder, when cornered, he never succeeds, and Fran is the kind of kidnapper who prepares gourmet meals for her involuntary guests. The four are extremely good company, like Hitchcock himself when, in an expansive, genial, storytelling mood, even his digressions have digressions, but always to the point of some higher entertainment truth.

Hitchcock aficionados may well miss signs of the director’s often overanalyzed pessimism. Family Plot is certainly Hitchcock’s most cheerful film in a long time, but it’s hardly innocent. One of the things that figure prominently in the plot, though it happens long before the film starts, is the story of a young man who, finding his stepparents boring, pours gasoline all over the house and incinerates the offending pair. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it continues the master’s franchise on the macabre.” –Vincent Canby (New York Times, April 10, 1976)

Roger Ebert was also positive in his statements about the film, giving it three out of four stars.

“Alfred Hitchcock has always preferred visuals to dialog, yet Family Plot opens on a talkative note. A medium, the slightly spaced-out Madame Blanche, is holding a séance with an eccentric old lady. They’re in the old lady’s parlor, surrounded by antiques and heirlooms and an abundance of deep shadows, and the old lady is involved in this incredibly complicated tale about events of years ago.

It appears that her late sister had an illegitimate child and, times being what they were, the child was given up for adoption. Then the sister died, and the child was lost track of, and now the old lady is afraid of dying and wants to make amends by willing her vast fortune to the child. Madame Blanche’s assignment: Find the missing nephew. He’d be almost 40 now.

If this were to be a routine story, the medium no doubt would recruit someone to play the missing nephew, and they’d share the vast fortune. But, no, this is a Hitchcock, so that would be far too simple. Madame Blanche does the unexpected thing: She sets out to find the nephew. And, as wonderfully played by Barbara Harris, she has such a sweet and simple faith in the possibility of everything that we almost think she’s right. She enlists the aid of her rather slow-witted boyfriend (Bruce Dern), a cabdriver and sometime actor. He’ll do the detective work, she’ll keep the old lady happy and they’ll share a $10,000 reward.

Now comes a nice touch. As Blanche and her boyfriend drive home in a cab, they almost run down a woman. They miss and drive on, but the camera follows the woman. She is, inevitably, the wife of none other than the missing nephew. And the two of them are involved in a series of kidnappings with precious jewels as the ransom.

The way Hitchcock cuts, just like that, from one pair to the other — cheerfully flaunting the coincidence – reminds me a little of Luis Bunuel’s recent The Phantom of Liberty. It’s as if both directors, now in their 70s and in total command of their styles, have decided to dispense with explanations from time to time: Why waste time making things tiresomely plausible when you can simply present them as accomplished?

Family Plot opens, as I’ve suggested, with a rather large amount of talking, but it’s necessary to lay out the elements of the story. Hitchcock has a deviously complicated tale to tell, and he’s going to tell it with labyrinthine detail, and he’s not going to cheat — so he wants to be sure we’re following him. It wouldn’t be playing fair with his meticulously constructed plot to describe very much of what happens, but there’s a real delight in watching him draw his two sets of characters closer and closer, until they meet in a conclusion that’s typical Hitchcock: simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.

But I can, I suppose, admire a scene or two. There’s a moment in a graveyard, for example, when a gravedigger appears almost from out of Hamlet to regard a suspicious tombstone with the investigating cabdriver. Another moment in the same cemetery, as the cabdriver and a newly made widow stalk each other on grass paths, with Hitchcock shooting from above to make them seem captives of a maze. And a scene in a cathedral that’s Hitchcock at his best: A bishop is kidnapped, and no one moves to interfere because… well, this is a church, after all.

As his kidnappers and jewel thieves, Hitchcock casts Karen Black and William Devane. She does a good job in a role that doesn’t give her much to do, but Devane, whom I hadn’t seen before, is inspired as the criminal mastermind and missing nephew. He has a kind of quiet, pleasant, sinister charm; he’s oily and smooth and ready to pounce. And his aura of evil contrasts nicely with Miss Harris and Dern, who have no idea what sorts of trouble they’re in.

Family Plot is, incredibly, Hitchcock’s 53rd film in a career that reaches back almost 50 years. And it’s a delight for two contradictory reasons: because it’s pure Hitchcock, with its meticulous construction and attention to detail, and because it’s something new for Hitchcock — a macabre comedy, essentially. He doesn’t go for shock here, or for violent effects, but for the gradual tightening of a narrative noose.

Everything’s laid out for us and made clear, we understand the situation we can see where events are leading… and then, in the last 30 minutes, he springs one concealed trap after another, allowing his story to fold in upon itself, to twist and turn, and scare and amuse us with its clockwork irony.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times, April 12, 1976)

Other reviews, such as the one published in the Independent Film Journal were also enthusiastic.

“For his 53rd film, Alfred Hitchcock has toned down the shock value and accentuated the humor in a deliciously complex comedy-suspense drama that will have audiences happily perched in the palm of its hand nearly every step of the way. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern sparkle as two innocent tricksters whose search for a missing heir suddenly parallels the path of a pair of professional kidnappers. Great fun and bound to be a great hit.

Don’t be too surprised if this year’s Easter Bunny is portlier than usual, complete with multiple chins, a proudly out-jutting belly and only a few wisps of grey hair remaining on his scalp. Chances are he’s shown up in the trademarked form of Alfred Hitchcock, beckoning audiences to Family Plot, a beautifully constructed, literately witty and thoroughly involving comedy suspense-drama crafted with the sure hands of a an impudent genius. Moving even further away from the shuddery sensibilities of his best-known films, Hitchcock seems to have approached his 53rd feature in a mellow and benign mood, spinning his complex web of suspense with a far greater accent on rich humor than on shock value, as if he didn’t want his audiences to feel even vaguely threatened or uncomfortable en route to their final catharsis. Stated simply, Family Plot promises those audiences one hell of a good time and should prove a rousing success at the box-office. The discomforting sense of menace may be missing, but in most respects Family Plot is still quintessential Hitchcock, a complex plot that begins as a tantalizing mystery, allows itself to be solved for the viewer relatively early on, and then shifts to pure suspense as its convoluted threads inexorably weave themselves together.

Beautifully scripted by Ernest Lehman from Victor Canning’s novel, The Rainbird Pattern, the film again taps that steady thematic vein that continually resurfaces in Hitchcock’s work: what happens when relatively innocent bystanders find themselves unwittingly—and dangerously—enmeshed in someone else’s criminal goings-on. In this case, the action cuts back and forth between two sets of protagonists, one of them greedy but basically innocent, the other coldly criminal, with both combinations destined to clash trajectories. The heroes of the piece, superbly played by Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris, are a beguiling pair of lower-echelon con artists contriving to track down the missing heir to a dowager’s fortune and hoping to earn a $10,000 finder’s fee for their trouble…

…More often than not, the intricate plot turns and quirks of character are far wittier and deliciously entertaining than they are tension-provoking, a fact that may momentarily disappoint serious Hitchophiles expecting artfully visualized set pieces like the shower stabbing in Psycho or the potato truck scene in Frenzy. But the story is definitely the thing, and even if a key scene in which Dern and Harris are pursued down the highway by a murderous car doesn’t sustain itself long enough to muster any great emotional payoff, there are more than enough ingenious twists and a firm enough overlay of suspense to keep viewers raptly entertained from beginning to end.

Brightening things considerably, and providing two of the most engaging characters ever to fill Hitchcock’s viewfinder, are Dern and Harris as a pair of good-hearted bumblers whose liveliness and emotional range firmly counters the kind of cool, cipher-like performances the director is noted for wanting from his actors. As their destined nemesis Devane checks in effectively as another suave but despicable Hitchcock villain, while Black, as his suddenly rebellious partner, conforms more closely to the cipher quality mentioned above. Strong support comes from Ed Lauter as Devane’s psychotically traditional henchman.

Technical credits, barring some of those curiously sloppy process shots Hitchcock seems to relish so much, are excellent, highlighted by a deliciously taunting score by John Williams. Piece by piece and in overall effect, Family Plot is as solid an entertainment as any audience—at any level—could ever hope for.” -S.K. (The Independent Film Journal, April 14, 1976)

Even Penelope Gilliatt’s review for The New Yorker was generous in its kindness towards Family Plot.

“With a kick on a cemetery headstone that has no body below (‘Fake! Fake!’ shouts the kicker), and a gentle, lethal plopping of brake fluid, the sound track of Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot firmly plants us in a world in which the hallowed is a hoax and the mechanically sophisticated is dangerous to treat as a plaything. Hitchcock has never made a strategically wittier film, or a fonder; and this in his seventy-seventh year.

The beginning reminds us that the Master has always wanted to direct, of all things, J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose; and, though he once cheerfully informed me that he has it in his studio agreement that he is not allowed to film the play, the wily old jackdaw has managed to smuggle a whit of Barrie’s fantasy into his new comedy-mystery. Mary Rose hears voices calling her from another world; at the beginning of Family Plot, when Barbara Harris, as a ravishingly pretty and constantly famished con-woman spiritualist named Blanche, is conducting a séance with a loaded old biddy named Miss Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), Blanche speaks in the voices of a woman and a man from the Great Beyond. The voices confirm Miss Rainbird’s guilt about having long ago covered up the illegitimate birth of an heir to the Rainbird fortune. Then Blanche, exhausted by her bogus insights, returns from the Other Side and gratefully accepts a drink. ‘A double shot of anything.’

Blanche works hard to make her wide-eyed living out of the dead. The offer of a reward of ten thousand dollars if she can find the missing heir is an amazing windfall. She generally manages frugally. Her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) drives a taxi. They exist on hamburger-munching and sex, both of which are perpetually being interrupted by twists in the Rainbird-heir mystery and by shift-work for the taxi company. The Bruce Dern character, called Lumley, puts up with deprivation better than his girl, whose temperament endearingly refutes generalities about women being too finely bred to have appetites. Blanche is a girl of simple longings whom fate keeps calorically and erotically ravenous.

Hitchcock has always thrived on making stories about couples. In Family Plot — written by Ernest Lehman, from an English novel by Victor Canning which has been transplanted to California — we see how his attitude toward casting has changed. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern occupy the places that would once have been held by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, or Kim Novak and James Stewart. The part of the glossy blonde (Karen Black) is now villainous, and the glossy blondness is a matter of a wig. Called Fran, she is in murderous collusion with a smooth diamond thief named Adamson (William Devane). Another couple. The two pairs are piercingly different. Blanche and Lumley adore each other, though they often seem about to throw lamps at each other; Fran and Adamson are partners in crime who cherish little love for each other and talk to each other with a formality that is eerily violent. There being no chivalry among thieves, Adamson unblinkingly sends Fran on dangerous missions by herself, for which she wears six-inch heels, black clothes, and the blond wig: at one’s first glimpse of her in this disguise she looks as if she might well be a man in drag. The music-hall sight is funnily linked to the way Blanche’s voice suddenly hits an air pocket and comes out as a baritone’s at the opening séance…

…[Hitchcock] often has a wryly amused view of women’s scares. I remember that he was once showing me his kitchen in Bel Air. Everything was spick-and-span. Not a cornflake visible. A desert for cockroaches. He opened a door, and icy air steamed out. The freezer locker: a whole room. I saw hams and sides of beef hanging from hooks like rich women’s fur coats in summer storage. Hitchcock courteously bowed me in first. I hesitated and looked back, imagining the door clanging shut behind me. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew that he knew. A Hitchcock scene was in our imaginations, and an equally Hitchcock flash of irrational fear had come to pass.

Each of his films has been full of moments of red-herring disquiet, but he has never laid such a bland set of ambushes as in Family Plot. The Master makes unsettling use of an oaken-looking woman in a jeweller’s shop, whom Blanche cheerfully asks if her sign is Leo; of a brick wall that comes open and then closes hermetically, causing steep claustrophobia; of a remote-control garage-door gadget; of a fragment of bishop’s red robe shut in the bottom of a car door in a garage, making one think of the gaudy socks of the unlosable corpse in The Trouble with Harry (1955); of an overhead shot of a weeping woman hurrying through a maze of paths in a cemetery, pursued by Bruce Dern; of a woman physician, a disgruntled old man in shirtsleeves, and identical-twin mechanics, who are successive false trails in Blanche’s chase; of a genteel chiming doorbell on the front door of the thieves’ house. Hitchcock’s ominous mechanical devices and his dark clues leading nowhere build up in us a farcical discomfiture. We are like oversensitive princesses troubled by peas under mattresses.

But Family Plot does not rest on the fostering of anxiety. Hitchcock allows himself a camaraderie with the audience which makes this film one of the saltiest and most endearing he has ever directed. It is typical of the picture that he should have the sagacity and technique to bring the terrifying car incident to such an un-troubling close. Only a very practiced poet of suspense could slacken the fear without seeming to cheat, and end the sequence without using calamity. With this picture, he shows us that he understands the secret of the arrow that leaves no wound and of the joke that leaves no scar. Sometimes in his career, Hitchcock has seemed to manipulate the audience; in this, his fifty-third film, he is our accomplice, turning his sense of play to our benefit. There is something particularly true-pitched in his use of the talent of Barbara Harris. She has never before seemed so fully used. The film finishes on her, as it begins. She goes mistily upstairs in pursuit of the enormous diamond that the villains have stolen. Lumley watches her. She seems to be in a trance. Maybe she has got supernatural powers, after all. She brings off a clairvoyant’s coup, though we know more than her lover, does. He is purely delighted by her. A Hitchcock film has seldom had a more pacific ending. –Penelope Gilliatt (The New Yorker, April 19, 1976)

Critics in Alfred Hitchcock’s native home seemed to also enjoy the film. One such example would be this rave review from The Times:

“Seventy-seven last Friday, Alfred Hitchcock has yielded to age none of his mastery as storyteller. He still possesses the supreme gift of suspense, in the sense of sustaining, at every moment, curiosity about what comes next. Because it’s played for light comedy going on farce, Family Plot risks being pigeon-holed as a frolic, a minor work in the old master’s canon. Time, I guess, may well accord it a central place. It has the geometric ingenuity of the later American work, along with the delight in quirky character that marked Hitchcock’s British period.

Derived from a novel by Victor Canning and scripted by Ernest Lehman, it maneuvers its plot into a symmetrical situation of two couples who are at once pursuing and pursued by each other. Barbara Harris (rather like a younger and funnier Shelley Winters) is a fake medium who with her accomplice (Bruce Dern), an out-of-work actor doing a little taxi-work, is after the reward for finding a long-lost heir. The heir (William Devane) has gone from bad to worse: having (as it emerges) incinerated his foster-parents, he is now leading a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, with his accomplice (Karen Black), and a kidnapper who trades his victims for desirable items of stock for his smart jewelry store. Naturally he mistrusts the intentions of the couple whom he discovers to be tailing him.

This plot is speedily established, with, elegant artifice. Driving away from the seance which has put them on the track of their quarry, Harris and Dern almost run down a sinister figure clad (by the veteran Hollywood designer and loyal Hitchcock collaborator Edith Head) all in black. The figure — Karen Black in a blonde wig — hurries on to the pick-up and then back to her accomplice, a villainous young man with a menacing glint in his teeth. The whole stage is set.

There are Hitchcock set-pieces like the Bishop kidnapped while officiating at a Mass or a chase at a funeral, along the maze-like paths of a graveyard, shot from above; jokey moments of fright like the Bishop’s red cassock leaking like blood from a car trunk; a very familiar Hitchcock nightmare when the nice couple are stranded on a bleak and lonely road, and the killer’s car draws slowly into view around the corner; clues delightedly planted like messages in a treasure hunt.

Yet what is most characteristic and charming in the film is a show-off relaxation, an easy demonstration of how it all should be done. Hitchcock this time builds a thriller without ever showing a killing (the only violent death is an accident, out of sight of the spectator); he makes the relationship of the two couples vibrantly, sexy without so much as showing a bed or a naked elbow. He gives a merry coup de grace to the convention of the car chase by reducing it to slapstick, with Harris clinging inconveniently around Dern’s neck as he struggles to control a brake-less car careering downhill, and finishing up with her foot in his face. It’s all a very jolly affair.” –The Times (August 20, 1976)

Admittedly, praise wasn’t universal. There were a few negative reviews. However, they seemed to be buried in the overwhelming approval of the majority… Well, the critical majority. Audiences seem to have been less enthusiastic.

Hitchcock had always taken pride in his box-office numbers, yet Family Plot was his least successful picture since The Trouble with Harry, another bent comedy to which the fifty-third Hitchcock bore a fleeting resemblance. Its number twenty-six box office ranking was an embarrassment, and to go out on top – with an audience winner – was one reason behind his seeming iron resolve to make yet one more film.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Actually, the director’s resolve to make another film had less to do with the box-office reception of Family Plot, and more to do with his nature. Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker. He was happiest when working on a new project. The next project would have been called, The Short Night. Unfortunately, Alfred Hitchcock’s debilitating health forced him to abandon his work on this new venture.

...and we are left with a wink.  The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

…and we are left with a wink.
The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

So in the end, we are left with the wink that so infuriated Ernest Lehman. It doesn’t seem at all inappropriate that Alfred Hitchcock’s swansong should have such a conclusion. After all, Hitchcock had been winking at his audiences for fifty years.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

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

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

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Picture Quality:

1.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal should be incredibly embarrassed with this ridiculously awful 1080P AVC encoded transfer. This goes beyond ineptitude. It shows an obvious disrespect for the film, and for the consumer. Family Plot has never looked particularly wonderful on home video, but one always hopes that a studio will improve the quality of each subsequent release. Most of these issues are not inherent in the source print either. There might be a slight improvement in detail from the previous DVD releases, but it is nowhere near what one expects from a Blu-ray transfer. Texture has been scrubbed from the image by an excessive use of digital noise reduction, and there are many occasions when haloing is a problem. Darker scenes have been crushed, while colors and contrast are uneven. There is always an incredibly noisy layer of grain. Grain can be a very beautiful thing, and is part of the film aesthetic. However, this transfer seems to be exhibiting something that is completely unnatural for film grain. (I am certain that it is a transfer issue.) Finally, there is a bit of film damage that could have been easily fixed if Universal actually put forth a minimal amount of effort to bring this film to high definition. This is Universal’s worst transfer of an Alfred Hitchcock film. The only good news is that the resolution is superior to their DVD editions of the film.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It might not be nearly enough of a consolation to say that the sound transfer doesn’t suffer the same apathetic treatment by Universal. Their mono DTS-HD mix is perfectly acceptable, and exhibits clear dialogue, balanced effects, and a full score by John Williams. This is as good as anyone might expect from a mono mix.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

One wonders why the excellent press conference for Family Plot wasn’t included in the supplements. This ninety minute Q & A would have made up for some of the discs less successful attributes. However, the excellent supplements that were available on previous DVD releases of the film can be found here as well.

Plotting Family Plot (2001) – (SD) – (00:48:22)

Laurent Bouzereau’s “Plotting Family Plot” isn’t the best of his Hitchcock related documentaries, but it isn’t the worst either. It is superior to the fluff that is produced for most recent home video releases, and does manage to give viewers an authentic glimpse into the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s final film. The program even utilizes actual ‘behind the scenes’ footage from the film’s production to illustrate the various interviews with the film’s cast and crew. Participants include Patricia Hitchcock, Howard G. Kazanjian, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black, Henry Bumstead, John Williams, and Hilton A. Green. It is essential viewing for fans.

Theatrical Trailers – (SD) – (00:03:18)

There are two theatrical trailers included, and both feature Alfred Hitchcock. The second of the two is probably the best, but it is nice to see both of them included on the disc (even if they are cropped to 4:3 ratio).

Storyboards: The Chase Scene – (SD)

This is basically a slide show of storyboards from the pre-visualization of the “chase sequence.” It is always nice to see storyboards included, but it would be preferable to see them here in high definition.

Production Photographs – (SD)

A slide show of production photographs are also included, and they round off the disc nicely.

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Final Words:

Family Plot is a pleasant farewell from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. It isn’t one of his best efforts, but it is difficult not to have a great time. The disc itself is another issue entirely. Universal needs to put more effort into some of their Blu-ray releases. This might be an upgrade from the DVD editions of the film, but the quality simply isn’t what one expects from a Blu-ray.

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Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Topaz

Topaz Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: November 05, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 143 min

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

Title Frame

“Well, to me, logic is dull… Of course, if you boil things down, everything must be logical… And there are complaints, consequently, about being too… you know, I’ve even heard some people say that doing a film like Topaz, which was a bestseller, and it deals with espionage during the [Cuban] missile crisis, where I’m not permitted, by the mere facts themselves, to deviate.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation – Channel 28, 1969)

There is a lot of talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s “creative decline.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a decline at all. It was a forced retreat. The director was still working under the tight reigns of Universal in 1969. The studio had set the director up in a cozy bungalow and had made him a very rich man. Unfortunately, they had also taken away his creative liberty and created an atmosphere that nurtured his creative decline (or what people perceive to be his creative decline). Their control of his creative ventures had driven his self confidence into exile.

Before the director made Torn Curtain, the studio had blocked one of the director’s dream projects; a new take on J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. After shooting Torn Curtain, Hitchcock had become excited about re-inventing the Hitchcock picture. He called his new project Kaleidoscope. (The project was later called Frenzy. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the 1972 film.)

Kaleidoscope was to be shot on actual locations using natural light, a handheld camera, and unknown actors. The script was shocking and extremely controversial. Hitchcock usually allowed audiences to relate to a likeable protagonist, but this new project would focus on the exploits of an attractive but vulnerable serial killer. Unfortunately, the script’s explicit and unflinching violence disturbed the suits at Universal. In “Hitchcock Lost and Found,” Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr summed up the situation in a single paragraph.

“…This new freedom of technique and of sexual explicitness led Hitchcock, with the help primarily of [Benn] Levy, and later others, to develop plans for the New York sex-murderer story, sadly blocked by Universal, that were bolder than anything ultimately realized in the London Frenzy. His experience with Universal in some ways echoed his experience with BIP: all sweetness and light to start with, but then frustratingly restrictive.” – Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr (Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films)

Frankly, Hitchcock was at his best when he was allowed complete control over his projects. When one looks at his early years at British International Pictures (where he was reduced to making projects that were assigned to him) and compares them with his films made with Gaumont/Gainsborough (where he was allowed to choose his own projects, and have control over them), it becomes clear that Alfred Hitchcock worked best when he worked in absolute freedom. His years at Universal offer further proof of this when one compares them with his years at Paramount (where he was usually given creative control over his own output).

In any case, it was felt that the avant-garde project didn’t have any commercial potential, and Hitchcock was convinced that he should abandon the project. If this had happened ten years earlier, he would have probably made the film with his own money (as he did with Psycho). Unfortunately, he agreed to drop the project for a more commercial venture… but what commercial venture?

“The obvious answer would come from Universal: what properties did they own which might be turned to his purposes? A rummage through the books and plays they had acquired came up with nothing very promising except Leon Uris’s sprawling and complicated espionage novel, Topaz. It was not ideal, and his previous essay in espionage and Iron Curtain politics had not been too happy. But it was better than nothing, and Hitch set to work with a will. Uris himself was involved in writing the screenplay, but Hitch did not see how he could use this, and was forced to go into production with nothing like his usual preparation… He was already in London picking locations when he decided to throw out the script he had, and cabled Sam Taylor, who had written Vertigo for him…” -John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)

Universal was to blame for pushing an unwritten project into production in order to finish in time for a September release. Samuel Taylor agreed to re-write the script, but it was still being prepared when the film went into production.

Topaz was not at all a typical Hitchcock production. We were writing scenes the night before filming, which Hitchcock didn’t like at all. The studio really put him in an awkward position.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

Filming certainly suffered from the rushed pre-production process, and the trouble would continue through post production. When test audiences hated the film’s original duel ending, Hitchcock shot an alternative ending that showed Jacques Granville boarding a plane to Moscow while André and Nicole Devereaux board a plane for Washington D.C. This ending raised a few eyebrows because Granville went unpunished, and it was felt that the French authorities would not accept this ending for a French release.

To prepare for trouble with the French authorities, Hitchcock prepared a third ending utilizing already shot footage that suggests that Granville goes home and commits suicide. The debate about which of the latter two endings should be used continued until it was finally decided to use different endings for different markets. However, production records suggest that Alfred Hitchcock preferred the Airport ending that shows Granville leaving for Moscow. He claimed that it was more true to life, and he even suggested hiding the suicide ending away so that it wouldn’t be used.

It is no wonder that Topaz is considered by many to be the director’s weakest American effort. The film was a box office failure, and failed to earn back its $4,000,000 budget. However, the film had some incredible moments that illustrate Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic brilliance (such as Juanita de Cordoba’s exquisite murder, and the excellent Pietà influenced post torture interrogation that lead to Juanita’s murder), and there were a number of critics that enjoyed Topaz.

Michelangelo's

Michelangelo’s “Pietà” was an obvious inspiration for a scene in “Topaz.”

This shot from

This shot from “Topaz” was obviously influenced by Michelangelo’s “Pietà.”

The review that was published in The Independent Film Journal was particularly kind.

“…The director is up to his old tricks, but they are still very good ones. An effective cast of mostly foreign players and a nicely complicated plot make the film thoroughly absorbing. Solid Box-office.

There will undoubtedly be those movie buffs who will argue that Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz is an echo chamber, [and] that everything in it has been done before by the master, and better. But after the malnutritious Marnie and Torn Curtain, it is a pleasure to find the director working with a densely plotted story-line. You have to keep on your toes during Topaz and that’s what makes it so enjoyable. The film is a thoroughly absorbing work, but an abrupt ending, meant probably to be ironic, has the effect of pulling the carpet out from under the viewer. As a commercial entry, the box office potential for Topaz is very strong; the Hitchcock name alone would be a crowd-puller, but this time he is also working with a pre-sold property; the Leon Uris novel his film was based on was an international best seller.

Topaz begins beautifully, and silently, with a sequence depicting a Russian KGB official, his wife and teenage daughter attempting to flee Copenhagen and defect to the Americans. They are trailed by Russian agents through a porcelain factory and the Den Permanente department store…

…Samuel Taylor’s screenplay has more than its share of cliché lines, but it also has its share of very amusing ones. It gets the characters on and off, and globe-trots efficiently enough, but two omissions are disturbing. We are never told just why Devereaux would risk everything for the American agent, and the arrival of Devereaux’s wife (Dany Robin) at the hide-out of Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli), suspected of being a member of the Topaz ring is a surprise, but an unexplained one.

In telling the complicated story, Hitchcock has supplied his usual touches. For a tortured woman’s inaudible whisper the camera rushes in to hear; Juanita’s murder is recorded by an overhead shot, and as her corpse collapses, the deep purple dress spreads out like blossoms of a flower; a seagull flying with an unusually large piece of bread in its beak giving away the fact there must be snooping picnickers nearby. Cameras glide up and down staircases, swoop onto mirrored reflections of the enemy’s face.

Seeing things rather than hearing them, has always been a favorite device of Hitchcock’s (Rear Window was practically devoted to it) and in Topaz it is again used. Instructions between Devereaux and his contact take place behind a florist’s refrigerator glass door; an important transaction at the Hotel Teresa is shown from across the street; and in a spacious conference room, the camera way up amidst the chandeliers, we watch as various consuls shift into groups, isolating themselves from the suspected traitor.

In the past Hitchcock has been hampered by casting his films with an eye toward box-office (Jane Wyman in Stage Fright, Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain, to name two), but in Topaz he has selected his players, mostly foreign actors, without using any “names.” The choices have been excellent ones, especially Frederick Stafford as Devereaux and the great looking Karin Dor as the doomed Juanita.” -The Independent Film Journal (December 9, 1969)

Vincent Canby went even further in his praise for the film. His review in the New York Times was titled, Topaz: Alfred Hitchcock at His Best.”

“It’s perfectly apparent from its opening sequence that no one except Alfred Hitchcock, the wise, round, supremely confident storyteller, is in charge of TopazTopaz, the code name for a Russian spy ring within the French Government, is the film adaptation of the Leon Uris novel, which itself was based on a real-life espionage scandal that kept both sides of the Atlantic busy in 1962.

Hitchcock sets his scene in a first act that dramatizes the defection of a high Soviet intelligence officer to C.I.A. officials in Copenhagen. The sequence, which lasts approximately 10 minutes and uses only a minimum of dialogue, is virtuoso Hitchcock, beginning with a dazzling, single-take pan shot outside the Soviet Embassy, then detailing the flight, pursuit through, among other things, a ceramics factory and the final safe arrival of the irritable Soviet official and his family aboard an American plane headed for Wiesbaden. The Russian’s only comment to the proud C.I.A. man: “We would have done it better.”

Topaz is not a conventional Hitchcock film. It’s rather too leisurely and the machinations of the plot rather too convoluted to be easily summed up in anything except a very loose sentence. Being pressed, I’d say that it’s about espionage as a kind of game, set in Washington, Havana and Paris at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, involving a number of dedicated people in acts of courage, sacrifice and death, after which the survivors find themselves pretty much where they started, except that they are older, tired and a little less capable of being happy.

Topaz is, however, quite pure Hitchcock, a movie of beautifully composed sequences, full of surface tensions, ironies, absurdities (some hungry seagulls blow the cover of two Allied agents), as well as of odd references to things such as Michaelangelo’s “Pieta,” only it’s not a Mother holding her dead Son, but a middle-aged Cuban wife holding her dead husband, after they’ve been tortured in a Castro prison.

Hitchcock, who can barely tolerate actors, has been especially self-indulgent in the casting of Topaz. The film has no one on the order of James Stewart or Cary Grant on which to depend, although it does use some fine character actors (Michel Piccoli, Phillipe Noiret) in small roles. Most of its performers are, if not entirely unknown, so completely subordinate to their roles that they seem, perhaps unfairly, quite forgettable…

…The people one remembers are those who are employed for the effect of their looks (John Vernon as a bearded Castro aide with brilliant blue eyes, Carlos Rivas as his bodyguard, a Cuban with remarkably red hair), or who are bequeathed vivid images by the narrative (Karin Dor as a beautiful anti-Castro Cuban who is shot for her efforts and collapses onto a marble floor, her body framed by the brilliant purple of her dress).

The star of Topaz is Hitchcock, who, except for his brief, signature appearance, remains just off-screen, manipulating our emotions as well as our memories of so many other Hitchcock films, including Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur and Torn Curtain, all inferior to Topaz. This is a movie of superb sequences that lead from a magnificent Virginia mansion to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, from an extraordinarily well-stocked Cuban hacienda to a small, claustrophobic, upstairs dining room in a Paris restaurant. Even architecture is important.

It’s also a movie of classic Hitchcock effects. Exposition may be gotten across by being presented either as gossip or as incidental, post-coital small talk. Conversations are often seen — but not heard — through glass doors. A Cuban government minister, staying at the Theresa, finds a misplaced state document being used as a hamburger napkin.

The film is so free of contemporary cinematic clichés, so reassuring in its choice of familiar espionage gadgetry (remote control cameras, Geiger counters), that it tends to look extremely conservative, politically. Topaz, however, is really above such things. It uses politics the way Hitchcock uses actors — for its own ends, without making any real commitments to it. Topaz is not only most entertaining. It is, like so many Hitchcock films, a cautionary fable by one of the most moral cynics of our time.” –Vincent Canby (New York Times, December 20, 1969)

Even Variety published a review that wasn’t completely negative (though it did seem to fall somewhere between the two extremes).

Topaz tends to move more solidly and less infectiously than many of Alfred Hitchcock’s best remembered [pictures]. Yet Hitchcock brings in a full quota of twists and tingling moments…” -Variety (December 31, 1968)

This praise is probably rather surprising to contemporary audiences and critics. Today, opinion tends to lean almost universally in the opposite direction. In fact, there were critics that were less than enthusiastic about Topaz upon the film’s release. As a matter of fact, John Russell Taylor (Alfred Hitchcock’s official biographer) wrote a review was especially negative.

“Hitchcock, like all major film directors, has made his share of bad films. But never, I think, one which was so generally flat, undistinguished, and lacking in any sign of positive interest or involvement on his part.” -John Russell Taylor (The Times, November 6, 1969)

Richard Corliss wrote a review that was more of a diatribe against auteur theory than an essay about the merits and weaknesses of Topaz. The article had a number of digressions (which have been omitted here) that reveal a certain bias against Hitchcock and the popular opinion that he is an auteur. When he finally gets around to discussing Topaz, it isn’t surprising to discover that his words usually aren’t very kind.

“…Hitchcock will often settle for a mediocre script and indifferent actors simply to play with the emotions of an audience. At his best, Hitchcock is very good — not great…

…Hitchcock, as Sarris has said of Nicholas Ray, “is not the greatest director who ever lived; nor is he a Hollywood hack.” He is neither the Shakespeare of film, as Sarris and Robin Wood state, nor its Shad-well, as Pauline Kael might want us to believe. And Topaz is neither the quintessence of Hitchcockian cinema, nor an aimless, repetitive exercise. Its delights and disappointments are more worthy of analysis than of hagiographies or captious dismissals. Topaz does lack, say, the cohesion and sustained suspense — and, frankly, the performances — of last year’s NBA Championship series between that aging but proud, quite Hawksian group, The Boston Celtics, and the Los Angeles Lakers, an aggressive, fiercely talented quintet of individuals. But the movie has moments — minutes, sequences — that snap with a special excitement that comes from the perfect convergence of character, situation, acting, camera placement and cutting…

…The technical side of the film is occasionally so dreadful — with mismatched movements and lighting, clumsily speeded-up motion for no reason except to get a bit of exposition over with more quickly, poor dubbing, peripatetic matte shots, too-long dissolves, unnecessary crescendos in the score — that Robin Wood should have a more difficult time than usual defending these inept process shots as Hitchcock’s jaundiced comment on the Industrial Age’s planned obsolescence…

…Not only does Topaz have too much operatic small talk, and not only does the opening aria — the smuggling of a Russian defector out of Denmark — seem needlessly distended, but the lead singer is about as capable in his role as Mrs. Miller would be in La Traviata. Frederick Stafford, an actor of indeterminate nationality and few movie credits (he starred in Andre Hunebelle’s OSS 117 — Mission for a Killer, released here in 1966), has what purports to be the leading role, that of a French intelligence agent stationed in Washington, with a branch office in Cuba. Stafford is terrible. He’s posey, wooden, smug, pausing over a brandy snifter like an early-talkie actor reading his lines into a hidden mike. In fact, Stafford’s badness is so consistent, almost stylized, that he is suggestive not of the individual bad actors one encounters in most movies, but of whole genres of bad actors… A good actor makes you feel he’s been inhabiting a character for years, and each nuance evokes a lifetime of experiences, choices and emotions. Stafford, and Dany Robin as his frigid wife, convey to the viewer nothing but the nervousness they feel in characters they don’t understand…

…Though Topaz is a leading man’s nightmare, it’s also a character actor’s dream. John Vernon, a powerful young Canadian actor (Point Blank, Justine, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here), is outstanding as a manic Castro aide. His black beard and marble-blue eyes first attract our attention, but Vernon keeps himself there by adding, to the Raf Vallone — “I am ze bool” hysteria of the role as written, an unusual amalgam of lust and tenderness for his mistress (who is really Stafford’s beloved, and a devoted anti-Communist), the heroic, warm, womanly Karin Dor. The scenes between Vernon and Dor are so superior to those with Stafford and Robin that you wonder how Hitchcock could have directed one feuding couple with extraordinary passion and tactile vividness, while letting a similar scene go memorably flat. The difference probably has as much to do with that felicitous congeries of situation and inspiration, of action and passion, of actor and character, as it does with any directorial epiphanies. Whatever the cause, these sequences in Dor’s villa are complex, human, and beautiful. They lead from Stafford’s idyll with his real love (who manages to spark this mannequin to real life), through Vernon’s discovery that Dor has betrayed him and her government — and it is a measure of Vernon’s and Hitchcock’s achievement that we can share the Castroite’s outrage and nearly tragic, cuckolded disillusionment — to her murder, photographed from above, her velvety violet dress filling the screen as she falls to the floor in a moving metaphor for the grace that informed her way of life and gives her final moral supremacy in their personal and political battle to the death. Throughout this whole middle section of the film, stereotypes become human beings, and Topaz comes vibrantly alive.

The final third of the film, in which Stafford discovers two Russian spies working in the French government, lacks the power and passion of the preceding encounter. Vernon and Dor are physical actors; Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret, who play the spies, are more intellectual, Piccoli in his suave assurance, Noiret in his Lorrean paranoia. The “confrontation” is in fact so oblique that it never really takes place. There is a luncheon for six, of whom two are spies. Hitchcock works over our suspicions through the use of supercilious glances and portentous camera angles, but the villains (the two charmers, of course) aren’t revealed until later, and Stafford never gets to tell them off. The movie just runs out, like a tube of toothpaste.

Part of Hitchcock’s problem is Leon Uris’s unwieldy book, based on a true spy story that is more coherent than the novel and more shocking than the movie… Topaz, a 400-page novel cluttered with insignificant (presumably documentary) detail and dramatically irrelevant characters, offered a challenge not only of condensation but of elaboration; and here, Hitchcock and scenarist Samuel Taylor (Sabrina, The Monte Carlo Story, Vertigo, Three on a Couch) have performed admirably. Situations and characters have been first simplified and then enriched. The Soviet defector (Per-Axel Arosenius) is thus allowed to suggest that the difference between himself and his interrogators is that he is a severe, aristocratic Russian and they are open-faced middle-class Americans. Roscoe Lee Browne is given a few marvelous, largely wordless scenes that strip his character of Uris’s idiosyncrasies the better to let Browne create him anew with smiles and gestures. And Michel Piccoli is allowed to be himself: concerned, decadent, so graceful that he obliterates questions of morality…

…Beneath the mythical Hitchcock who is the author of everything grand in his oeuvre is a partly creative, mostly collaborate craftsman who must rely on the crucial contributions of his co-workers. Topaz, inept and ineffable, poorly acted and well-acted, shoddily shot and exquisitely shot, mediocre and transcendent, should be kept in mind before we send “Hitchcock” to the Pantheon or to critical perdition.” -Richard Corliss (Film Quarterly, Spring 1970)

Topaz is one of this reviewer’s least favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s American films, but it is a film that seems to improve with each viewing. There are sequences that are undeniably brilliant. It would be a mistake to disregard the film entirely. However, I maintain that it would have been preferable to have Kaleidoscope take this film’s place in Hitchcock’s filmography.

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

Topaz's Masterpiece Collection Page

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

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

 [Note: The extended 2 hour and 23 minute version of the film is featured here with the “airport ending.”]

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

 Universal’s VC-1 transfer exhibits excellent color resolution and impressive clarity. The sharp detail showcase the various textures accurately, and the grain structure remains consistent throughout the length of the film. Of course, the transfer does have a few flaws that keep it from being one of the better transfers in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. There is a fair amount of source noise at certain points throughout the picture, and there are a few instances when the color fluctuates. Luckily, the skin tones are almost always consistent and natural looking. As is usual with most of Universal’s color films, there is a fair amount of digital tampering performed on the image. There may be a few minor image halos at certain points in the film. Overall, the transfer is satisfactory.

 Screenshot 3

Sound Quality:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

 The two channel mono soundtrack is quite clean, and showcases clear dialogue without any distracting noise or anomalies to distract from one’s enjoyment. The film’s music and sound effects are also well rendered here. There is very little room for complaint here.

Screensho 4

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Topaz: An Appreciation – (SD) – (29 minutes)

Laurent Bouzereau again directs this “appreciation” of Topaz, but an objective “making of” documentary would have been preferable. While Leonard Maltin attempts to walk the viewer through a few of the film’s production problems, there isn’t enough information here to put it among Bouzereau’s other documentaries for Universal’s Hitchcock catalog (most of which are excellent). It is nice that an effort was made, even if it doesn’t completely satisfy.

It manages to be just useful enough to maintain our interest, but it is disappointing to not have a more comprehensive look at the film’s creation. Why do we not include any information about Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred Kaleidoscope project? Where are the interviews with the actors and crew? Were they not willing to participate? John Forsythe appeared in The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over. Why not question him about this film? These questions will have to go unanswered (just like our questions about Topaz).

Alternate Endings – (SD) – (6 minutes)

All three of the film’s endings are included here (“The Duel,” “The Suicide,” and “The Airport”) “The Duel” isn’t complete, and seems to be in poor condition. This is probably because it was never a part of any official release due to the negative comments at preview screenings. The other two endings were both released in various markets, and appear to be in fine condition. It is interesting to compare these three endings.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (3 minutes)

This theatrical trailer is an interesting artifact. It features Alfred Hitchcock, but lacks the level of wit that one sees in some of his other trailers. It is certainly good to see it included here.

Storyboards: The Mendozas (SD) – (12 minutes)

“The Mendozas” sequence storyboards are shown with video footage of the film so that fans can make comparisons. This should interest fans of storyboarding.

Production Photographs (SD) – (6 minutes)

This is a slideshow of movie posters, vintage ads, and production photos. It is nice to see that this carried over from the earlier DVD editions.

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

Topaz isn’t one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better American films, but it is has moments of brilliance. Since the film seems to improve substantially with each viewing, fans will probably want to add it to their collection. Luckily, Universal’s Blu-ray transfer is a decent upgrade to the previous DVD editions of the film.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Jamaica Inn – 75th Anniversary Edition

75th Anniversary Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Cohen Film Collection

 Release Date: May 12, 2015

 Region: Region A

Length: 1:39:39

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono LPCM (48 kHz / 2304 kbps / 24-bit)

 Subtitles: None

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.06 Mbps

Note: This release is also available in a DVD edition.

Maureen O'Hara had made two small film appearances before starring in the film, but this was the first film that she made using her famous stage name.

Maureen O’Hara had made two small film appearances before starring in the film, but this was the first film that she made using her famous stage name.

“…Since the contract with Selznick wasn’t due to start until April, 1939, I had time to make another British film, and that was Jamaica Inn… Laughton and Erich Pommer were associated on the production of that one. The novel, as you know, is by Daphne du Maurier, and the first script was written by Clemence Dane, who was a playwright of some note. Then Sidney Gilliat came in and we did the script together. Charles Laughton wanted his part built up, and so he brought in J.B. Priestley for additional dialogue…

Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake. If you examine the basic story, you will see that it’s a whodunit… All sorts of things happen in that tavern, which shelters scavengers and wreckers who not only seem to enjoy total immunity, but who are also kept thoroughly informed of the movements of ships in the area. Why? Because at the head of this gang of thugs is a highly respectable man – a justice of the peace, no less –who masterminds all of their operations.

It was completely absurd, because logically the judge should have entered the scene at the end of the picture. He should have carefully avoided the place and made sure he was never seen in the tavern. Therefore it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace. Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed. Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1967)

Hitchcock was a director that usually enjoyed a very comfortable level of creative freedom. He was considered Britain’s best film director, and was given a rare amount of control over his films. If Alfred Hitchcock’s lengthy monologue about Jamaica Inn seems overly negative, it is probably due to the unusual amount of control that Charles Laughton and Erich Pommer had over the production.

He elaborates about of Laughton’s interference later in the same interview.

 “When we started the picture [Laughton] asked me to show him only in close shots because he hadn’t figured out the manner of his walk. Ten days later he came in and said, ‘I’ve found it.’ It turned out that his step had been inspired by the beat of a little German waltz, and he whistled it for us as he waddled about the room. I can still remember how he did it… I don’t like to work that way.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1967)

Directing Jamaica Inn was probably good practice for the director, because his next film would be made for David O. Selznick. This film would be Rebecca, which was based on another novel by Daphne du Maurier. As a matter of fact, the author wasn’t particularly happy with Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn. She had to be convinced that Rebecca would be more faithful to her novel… but all of this seems to be a slight digression from the subject of this article.

The film certainly bears the mark of the master, but it isn’t a film that showcases his usual storytelling methods. Contemporary audiences might have the impression that Jamaica Inn was one of the director’s failures. This was not the case. As Hitchcock mentioned in his interview with François Truffaut, the film was quite a hit at the box office, and critical reception wasn’t particularly bad either.

Maurice Yacowar’s essay about Jamaica Inn (featured in Hitchcock’s British Films) claims that the film was poorly received, but when one looks at the actual reviews it becomes clear that the reception wasn’t particularly negative. There were certainly some negative reviews, but these were balanced by a large number of excellent reviews.

Variety was one of the first publications to sing the film’s praises.

“Superb direction, excellent casting, expressive playing and fine production offset an uneven screenplay to make Jamaica Inn a gripping version of the Daphne du Maurier novel. Since it’s frankly a blood-‘n’-thunder melodrama, the story makes no pretense at complete plausibility…

…Atmosphere of the seacoast and the moors is strikingly recreated and the action scenes have a headlong rush. Withal, there are frequent bits of brilliant camera treatment and injections of salty humor. It’s a typical Alfred Hitchcock direction job…” Variety (December 31, 1938)

The BFI Monthly Film Bulletin was equally enthusiastic, but disagreed with Variety’s claim that the film was “typical” of Hitchcock.

“…This lurid story of violence and brutality is lavishly staged. Its sinister atmosphere is set in the opening sequence of a wrecking. This is most effectively represented, and the lighting of the night scene is outstandingly good. There are few directorial touches which are characteristically Hitchcock, and on the whole he has sacrificed subtlety to spectacle. The crowd scenes are handled with his usual dexterity…

…The newcomer, Maureen O’Hara, is charming to look at and has a delightful voice and shows distinct promise as an actress.” – BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (May, 1939)

The Portsmouth Evening News went even further in their praise of the film.

“This picture has been made by Laughton’s independent film unit – in collaboration with Erich Pommer – which gave us that very disappointing The Vessel of Wrath: a film of face-pulling grimaces, and slow action. But this is vastly better, and I rank it among the best films I have seen so far this year.

Jamaica Inn is a melodrama, and first-class melodrama too…

…I should say at once that [Laughton] is excellent in this role. He captures the grand manner of the arrogant aristocrat magnificently, and now and again there comes into his eyes that trace of hereditary madness which finally sends him to his death… It is a fine performance…

…The film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who is so good at creating an atmosphere of suspense in his pictures (as in The Lady Vanishes). This is not a typical Hitchcock film, but the suspense is there time and time again… Be sure to see Jamaica Inn.” -Portsmouth Evening News (May 16, 1939)

The Aberdeen Journal praised both Laughton and Hitchcock in no uncertain terms.

“Two names commend at once this version of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the bad old Cornish wreckers — Charles Laughton and Alfred Hitchcock. Expectations are high and there is no disappointment. As the villainous squire who satisfies his taste for luxury by getting a band of ruffians to lure ships on to the Cornish rocks and then to plunder them, Mr. Laughton gives a characteristic performance. It is not, perhaps, original Laughton, but the actor straddles the scene and Mr. Hitchcock serves him particularly well in bringing out the ‘asides’ to detail which Mr. Laughton can do so well with the flicker of an eyelid or the wave of a wrist.

It is interesting to find Mr. Hitchcock directing a costume piece for a change. He produces terrific pace, which suits the bloodthirsty plot excellently, and he brings the best out of such fine supporting players as Marie Ney, Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams, Robert Newton and Maureen O’Hara.” -Aberdeen Journal (October 3, 1939)

Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin also enjoyed Jamaica Inn, and felt that it had immense commercial appeal.

“Jamaica Inn offers choice entertainment for a variety of filmgoers. Superbly acted and magnificently directed, this picturization of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel builds suspense and interest from the very first sequence to the taut, action-packed and unusual climax. It combines the best features of English mystery-drama with American action. It packs an entertainment wallop your reviewer has rarely felt during his past few weeks of Hollywood previewing. There are the mystery and horror angles to attract the action fans. More discriminating patrons will be interested in the acting treat set up by Charles Laughton. Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams and others in the hand-picked cast. Because it is an English production, no exhibitor should stamp it as a film of limited appeal. Jamaica Inn warrants every possible exploitation effort. It is first rate motion picture entertainment…

…Charles Laughton is virtually the whole show. Expertly he creates a fascinating madman whose insanity becomes more intense, more apparent as he comprehends his approaching doom. Leslie Banks is excellent as the crude tool in Laughton’s hands. Marie Ney impresses as his wife. Newcomer Maureen O’Hara is attractive and a capable young actress. Emlyn Williams etches another of his distinctive heavy characterizations. Supporting cast is uniformly good.

A past master at this sort of drama, Alfred Hitchcock’s direction attains its usual high standard.” -Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin (October 7, 1939)

Of course, there were a few critics that felt that the film wasn’t up to the usual Hitchcock standards. The Yorkshire Post published a particularly negative review.

“…That Mr. Hitchcock should be directing the picture gave promise of novel treatment. Yet Mr. Hitchcock’s technique, usually so refreshing even though he does not always take care to conceal the improbabilities in the story, never once came through in Jamaica Inn. Perhaps he was worried by the historical setting — his speciality is modern times — but oddly enough, there was none of that suspense which he can so expertly create. The film passed from shipwreck to smugglers’ inn, from squire’s mansion back, via smuggler’s inn, to the storm-lashed coast and a final night chase along the moonlit turnpike road.

Here, in fact, were all the right ingredients. Yet somehow one didn’t care a hoot what happened — and I think the reason, partly, was that not one of the characters was ever firmly planted as a real person: Mr. Laughton’s make-up was singularly grotesque, and I felt that behind it were not even the brains to direct one common smuggler, let alone a dozen.

It was understood that Sir Humphrey came of tainted stock, and that insanity would gradually present itself. And so it did — but not in that eerie, horrifying manner which lies well within Mr. Laughton’s range. Throughout he remained a merely ridiculous figure — even, his eventual suicide was rather absurd and provoked only titters.

Mr. Leslie Banks, as chief smuggler, blundered around and looked suitably dangerous; poor Miss Ney just suffered; Mr Robert Newton was a resourceful preventive officer, but in his dealings with Miss O’Hara spelt romance with a very small “r.” Miss O’Hara herself is sweet and pretty — but aren’t they all?

Most of the film has been shot in dim interiors — or else in shocking bad weather (with none of the grandeur of bad weather). This also contributed to the general gloom. I don’t think the sun shone once…” -F. A. R. (Yorkshire Post, May 10, 1939)

If scholars are under the impression that Jamaica Inn was poorly received, one reason might be a review that was published in The Times.

“Miss Daphne du Maurier’s story of wreckers on the Cornish coast, Jamaica Inn, which appears on the London screen this week, neither adds to nor greatly detracts from the reputations of Mr. Charles Laughton and Mr. Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Laughton’s playing is effective along familiar theatrical lines, and Mr. Hitchcock’s production is rather painstaking than inspired…

In the midst of a story which appears to have been made for schoolboys — the film is adapted from a novel by Miss Daphne du Maurier — there appears one curious and picturesque character, the character who is played by Mr. Charles Laughton… The wind blows nearly always, the nights seem to be very long and the scenes in daylight few, the waves are spectacular, and there is a great deal of fighting, riding, hiding, pursuit, and escape. In fact the director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, seems for the moment to have given up his method of slow and deliberate tension; it is a film of downright and in no way subtle action.

But the personage represented by Mr. Laughton is little more than conventionally picturesque; he is the squire who directs the wreckers, a fantastic and inordinate gentleman of the Regency period, megalomaniac, flighty, and uncontrollable. Even so it is apparently thought necessary to apologize for this curious figure by calling him, quite unnecessarily, a lunatic; Mr. Laughton makes him quite intelligible without going to such extremes and he gives a fascinating sketch of vanity run to seed and of the manners of a dandy changing in exile to hysterical flourishes. But it is surely a mistake to exaggerate the dandy’s accent until, as happens continually, he becomes inaudible in the theatre…” The Times (May 15, 1939)

Certain reviews seem to report both the positive and the negative elements in Jamaica Inn, and these moderate reviews are probably a fair representation of the film’s attributes. The review published in Harrison’s Reports is one such example.

“This British-made production will probably do good business, not because the picture itself merits it, but because of the popularity of Charles Laughton, the star, and of Alfred Hitchcock, the director; also because of the fame of the novel, which has been read widely. It is a lurid melodrama, centering around nefarious characters, who resort to the most villainous acts to gain their ends. The action is spotty: at times it is slow, but occasionally it becomes quite exciting, holding one in tense suspense. Laughton overacts a bit, but his performance is colorful and amusing; he dominates the picture. He is particularly good in the final scenes…” -Harrison’s Reports (September 30, 1939)

Frank S. Nugent was wise enough to sort out the reasons behind some of the more problematic elements of Jamaica Inn. He believed that the control that Laughton had over the production was detrimental to the final product. His review isn’t particularly positive, but it does find room for praise.

“Having set his own standards, Alfred Hitchcock must be judged by them; and, by them, his Jamaica Inn… is merely journeyman melodrama, good enough of its kind, but almost entirely devoid of those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor, the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize his best pictures. Without them, Hitchcock is still a good director, imaginative and cinema-wise, but with no more individuality than a dozen others in his field and subject, like them, to the risk of having a mere actor run away with the film.

That had never happened to Hitchcock before. His pictures always were his. But Jamaica Inn will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture. It bears the Laughton stamp as unmistakably as The Thirty-nine Steps bore Hitch’s. Perhaps that is the root of the evil, if it is an evil. For Hitch never faced a player his size before (and we’re not thinking only of gross tonnage). With two such stalwart individualists battling on a bare sound stage they might have come to a draw. But Laughton had more than weight on his side: he is co-owner of the producing firm, Mayflower Productions, and in the film he wears costume and a putty nose. No director can spot Mr. Laughton a putty nose and still hope to lead him by it.

With Laughton setting the pace then, which is jolly enough, though slower than Hitch would have ordered it, Jamaica Inn has become a pardonably free translation of Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic novel… Mr. Laughton’s relish of the squire—it was a clergyman in the novel, but no matter—is infectious. Conscious as we were that he was overplaying him unashamedly, there is that to Mr. Laughton’s ogling, lip-pursing, strutting, nostril-dilating style which makes the offense altogether endearing. We can’t recall when we’ve ever held a monster in such complete affection. But, of course, Mr. Laughton’s Laughton-ism has slowed things down. He is such a bulky man to get into motion. We had the impression, as the film rolled on, of Hitch rushing the action to his doorstep and then having to wait three or four minutes for Laughton to answer the bell. Actually, the wait must have told more on Hitch than it did on us.

There are other virtues. Maureen O’Hara, who is lovely, has played Mary Yellen well this side of ingénue hysteria, with charming naturalness and poise, with even a trace of self-control in her screams. Leslie Banks is capital as Joss Merlyn, the wrecker ringleader, with a fine crew of cutthroats around him—Emlyn Williams, Wylie Watson, Edwin Greenwood among them. Marie Ney as the girl’s aunt, Robert Newton as the undercover man, George Curzon as one of Sir Humphrey’s blanker friends are splendid in their degree. We enjoyed it all, Mr. Laughton most, but it doesn’t seem like Hitchcock.” – Frank S. Nugent (The New York Times, October 12, 1939)

The review that was published in Time magazine seems to have a similar viewpoint.

Jamaica Inn (Mayflower). Fans of director Alfred Hitchcock had a surprise in store for them when they got the wrappings off this Hitchcock picture. They found it was no Hitchcock but an authentic Laughton. Scarcely a shot in the whole picture revealed the famed British director’s old mastery of cunning camera, sly humour, [and] shrewd suspense. But Charles Laughton’s impersonation of a Nero-like Cornish squire who is the paranoiac brain behind a gang of land pirates was magnificent in the eye-rolling, head-cocking, lip-pursing, massively mincing Laughton style.

Jamaica Inn is the somewhat free rending of Daphne Du Maurier’s best-seller of the same name… People who like their melodrama raw and in big gulps get their fill. Those who would swap a third-rate Hitchcock any night for a first-rate Laughton get an even break…” -Time (October 30, 1939)

One wonders what Jamaica Inn might have been like if Alfred Hitchcock had more control over the project. It is impossible to know for sure, but one would assume that he would give the film a more subjective treatment. Contemporary critics tend to respond more negatively to the film, but it is important to understand that they are coming to the film with a much larger catalog of Hitchcock films in which to compare this early work. Hitchcock was already an established master of suspense in 1939, but he had yet to create most of his best films.

It is also important to remember that until now, only inferior prints and transfers of Jamaica Inn have been available. As a matter of fact, many of the American public domain DVD releases of the film are missing approximately 8 minutes of footage! One has to question whether or not these critics were watching decent prints.

This brings us around to this new restored version of Jamaica Inn. The Cohen Media Group partnered with the British Film Institute to undertake a full 4K digital restoration of Jamaica Inn that was based on the BFI’s original nitrate negatives. The resulting print premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (it played in the Cannes Classic section), and also screened at the New York Film Festival.

Charles Laughton was Alfred Hitchcock's biggest challenge during the production. How does one direct an actor when the actor is also the producer and has the final word?

Charles Laughton was Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest challenge during the production. How does one direct an actor when the actor is also the producer and has the final word?

The Presentation:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is protected by a clear Blu-ray case (similar to those used by Criterion) with film related graphics. Inside the case is a small booklet that features chapter stops and film credits. These pages are illustrated with photographs from the film.

menu1menu 2menu 4menu 5

The animated menus utilize footage from the film with music from the film’s credits.

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Picture Quality:

 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

 The Cohen Media Group and The British Film Institute deserve praise for their 4K digital restoration of Jamaica Inn. A lot of painstaking time and effort went into the restoration.

“…The original nitrate negatives were sourced from the BFI. These elements were then scanned at 4K resolution by RRsat utilizing the ArriScan to create a DPX file sequence. The film was suffering from shrinkage and warping and as such had to be scanned without pin registration…

…Once scanned, the 4K sequence required huge amounts of stabilization to combat the shrinkage. Image warping also needed to be electronically pinned as the images were effectively bouncing around the screen. The nature of these issues required multiple software fixes on a frame by frame basis before the dirt and scratch removal could begin. The density within the image also fluctuated creating a pulsing effect which again had to be mapped and removed digitally.

Once these pre-fix stages the technical team moved into traditional restoration utilizing multiple software packages including PFClean, AfterFX, MTI and Dark Energy to treat the dirt and scratches. Grain treatment was applied with a mind to keeping as close to the original [celluloid source].” –Park Circus (Jamaica Inn Restored, May 21, 2014)

Their efforts were certainly not in vain. This transfer is an absolute revelation. The ghastly DVD versions that so many public domain houses released can be promptly tossed into the garbage bins. In other words, this is much more than an upgrade in picture resolution.

The dual-layered disc allows for a high bitrate that showcases this new restoration to maximum effect. The image exhibits much better contrast than anyone might expect, and this adds clarity to an already detailed image. The nitrate source materials make for a very cinematic image with a slight layer of grain that reminds us that we are watching a movie that was shot on nitrate film without ever becoming distracting. Most should be happy that the team did not go crazy with DNR. Tears in the print, dirt, scratches, and other anomalies have been properly eradicated. There may be a few rare instances of such flaws, but they aren’t at all distracting and should go unnoticed by most viewers.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

The full version of the film is happily represented here in a suburb black and white transfer that is free of any Chroma. Alfred Hitchcock fans have reason to rejoice.

Maureen O'Hara as Mary

Maureen O’Hara as Mary

Sound Quality:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

 The audio also required a great deal of restoration.

“…Hiss, crackle and pops were removed while the ‘noise’ from the original tracks was dramatically improved. The audio was digitized and then treated in the software domain in a completely non-destructive process.” –Park Circus (Jamaica Inn Restored, May 21, 2014)

The film’s audio track has been greatly improved by these efforts. It is quite clean for a film that is 75 years old, and the mono transfer seems to represent their work quite well. One can now experience Jamaica Inn without a wall of distracting hiss that seemed to haunt so many transfers of the film. Pops and crackling noises have also been greatly reduced (if not entirely obliterated). The opening music by Eric Fenby isn’t nearly as dynamic as it might be on a more recent release, but it is certainly within the realm of what one can reasonably expect from a 75 year old film.

Maureen O'Hara & Robert Newton didn't exactly set the very flammable nitrate film ablaze as love interests.

Maureen O’Hara & Robert Newton didn’t exactly set the very flammable nitrate film ablaze as love interests. However, Hitchcock does manage to hold our interest.

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature-length Commentary Track by Jeremy Arnold

Jeremy Arnold is an author and film historian that has written over 500 programming articles and film reviews for the TCM website. He also has a few books about various classic films to his credit. His commentary track is surprisingly good. It is quite informative without ever becoming overly dry. It maintains the viewer’s interest throughout the entire length of the film. It is well worth the audiences time.

Shipwrecked In A Studio: The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn(1080P) -(13:06)

This featurette is essentially a video essay by Donald Spoto. Spoto is the author of two of the more controversial biographies about Alfred Hitchcock. The liner notes list this program as a “video essay.” Actually, it is more of a laundry list of trivia delivered in a scholarly tone of voice. It is nice to have here, but it is vastly inferior to the excellent commentary track. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t particularly focus on the actual making of the film very much.

However, it seems somewhat ungrateful to criticize this featurette. It is much more than one might expect. After all, the film is 75 years old.

2014 Re-release Trailer – (1080P) – (1:28)

The restoration trailer is also included here.

Maureen O'Hara establishes herself as a feisty heroine in her first starring role.

Maureen O’Hara establishes herself as a feisty heroine in her first starring role.

Final Words:

Jamaica Inn isn’t one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, but it is both diverting and essential viewing for fans of the director. Not only is it the final film made by Alfred Hitchcock before starting a career in Hollywood, but it is also the screen debut of Maureen O’Hara (or at least her first appearance that was credited to “Maureen O’Hara”). Those who have not yet seen this new 4K restoration print of the film will want to do so immediately.

Yeah, I think we can safely say that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film.

I think we can safely say that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film,  even if  Laughton’s control of the project kept it from having his usual subjective treatment.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:59:29

Video: 1080P AVC (MPEG-4)

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

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.37 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. This disc also comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

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“A very important thing about The Birds: I never raised the point, ‘Can it be done?’ Because then it would never have been made. Any technician would have said ‘impossible.’ So I didn’t even bring that up, I simply said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ No one will ever realize that had the pioneering technical work on it not been attempted, the film would not have been made. Cleopatra or Ben Hur is nothing to this–just quantities of people and scenery. Just what the bird trainer has done is phenomenal. Look at the way the crows chase the children down the street, dive all around them, land on their backs. It took days to organize those birds on the hood of the car and to make them fly away at the right time. The Birds could easily have cost $5,000,000 if Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn’t been technicians ourselves.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

INTRODUCTION:

One expects a text on The Birds to focus on the dynamics of the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his protégé, ‘Tippi Hedren.’ Unfortunately anything written about this relationship would be trumped by more famous texts by Donald Spoto. However, it would be a mistake to take Spoto’s account into consideration without looking at more responsible accounts that use evidence instead of hearsay and wild theory. The trouble with a Spoto text is that he is perfectly willing to ignore evidence that disputes his theories. Admittedly, Hitchcock’s publicity persona doesn’t help his case (and probably planted these theories). A 1962 article in The Hollywood Reporter announcing Hitchcock’s new contract player is an example of publicity that (purposefully) feeds into public perception.

“…In The Birds, I am introducing another young lady who happens to be blonde, Miss Tippi Hedren. But I am happy to say she is not the spectacular type of blonde who flaunts her sex. It is important to distinguish between the big, bosomy blonde and the ladylike blonde with the touch of elegance, whose sex must be discovered.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

It is probably Hitchcock’s fault if contemporary perception of the director is based on his publicity persona, but intelligent people should at least attempt to separate his persona from reality. To do this, one needs hard evidence rather than interviews and publicity items (especially if the interviewee is unreliable). Therefore, this article prefers to focus on the working relationship between Evan Hunter and Alfred Hitchcock, the prodigious special effects, and the film’s reception.

THE GENESIS

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is considered by many people to be one of the director’s best films. This is likely do to the fact that it is a considerable technical achievement, and paved the way for advancements in special effects photography. It is certainly an important film, but this reviewer does not include it on his list of best Hitchcock films. It is a flawed work that has moments of brilliance. It is the opinion of this reviewer that much of what is wrong with the film can be traced to the film’s script.

It was certainly a compelling concept, and Daphne du Maurier’s short story was a wonderful mood piece. Hitchcock probably became aware of the story when it was published in one of his anthologies. However, Hitchcock probably gained much of his motivation for making the film from an article in the “Santa Cruz Sentinel.” The article discussed a real life account of bird attacks. It was a signal to Hitchcock that The Birds should be his next film.

WRITING WITH EVAN HUNTER

Alfred Hitchcock originally asked Joseph Stefano to work with him on the script, but Stefano declined to participate. One can only speculate as to why Hitchcock eventually turned to Evan Hunter, but two of Hunter’s stories (“Number Twenty-Two” and “Vicious Circle“) had been made into episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957, and he had adapted the teleplay for “Appointment at Eleven” in 1959.

“[Appointment at Eleven] was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o’clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid’s drunk and trying to get drunker and obnoxious, and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.

This may have been in Hitch’s mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there’s no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some ‘artistic respectability’ with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock often preferred working with novelists and playwrights instead of screenwriters, so the decision to hire a novelist for The Birds wasn’t as unique as Hunter implies.

“The call came from my agent toward the end of August. I thought at first that Joan Harrison wanted me to adapt another story for Hitch’s TV show. But no, it seemed Hitch had purchased motion picture rights to a Daphne Du Maurier novella titled The Birds, and he wanted me to write the screenplay for the movie he planned to make from it. I told my agent I would have to read the story before I decided. In truth, for the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock on a feature film, I would have agreed to do a screenplay based on the Bronx telephone book.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Of course, Hitchcock planned to expand upon the premise of the original story.

“…When I spoke with [Hitchcock], he said ‘forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.’ He said, ‘That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.’ In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

It is easy to understand why Hitchcock vetoed Hunter’s original two ideas, both of which would have resulted in a very different picture.

“…The first of these was to add a murder mystery to the basic premise of birds attacking humans, an idea I still like. But Hitch felt this would muddy the waters and rob suspense from the real story we wanted to tell. The second was about a new schoolteacher who provokes the scorn of the locals when unexplained bird attacks start shortly after her arrival in town. In the eventual movie; the school teacher survived (but not for long) in the presence of Annie Hayworth. In the movie, the town’s suspicion and anger surfaces in the tides restaurant scene. But Hitch did not want a schoolteacher for his lead; he needed someone more sophisticated and glamorous…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Much of the trouble with the film lies in the approach that Hitchcock and Hunter agreed upon.

“I take full credit – or blame, as the case may be – for what I suggested to Hitch that afternoon: a screwball comedy that gradually turns into stark terror. The idea appealed to him at once. I think he saw it as a challenge equal to the one the birds themselves presented. I think, too, that he saw in it a way of combining his vaunted sense of humor with the calculated horror he had used to great effect in Psycho. …My own reference points were the black and white comedies I’d grown up with in the forties…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

One imagines that Hitchcock found another misleading first act appealing, but the “screwball comedy” opening isn’t nearly as interesting as the first 45 minutes of Psycho (1960). The tone of a “screwball comedy” is also very much at odds with the tone of a horror film. One could argue that there was a sufficient amount of humor in Psycho (1960), but gallows humor and madcap comedy are two very different things.

“When I first suggested ‘screwball comedy becomes terror,’ Hitch should have said ‘That is the worst idea I have ever heard in my life. Let’s move on.’ Instead, we marched ahead confidently, blithely trying to graft upon Du Maurier’s simple tale of apocalyptic terror a slick story about two improbable lovers confronted with an even more improbable situation – birds attacking humans.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hitchcock’s working methods with Hunter were similar to those that he employed with most of his other writers.

“… I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say ‘Tell me the story so far,’ and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That’s the first bird attack… But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock’s influence over the details and the final shape of the screenplay is evident in a lengthy letter that the director wrote to Hunter after reading the first draft. (This is after Hitchcock and Hunter worked out the story and the structure of the film in Hitchcock’s office.)

“…I have had the opportunity of going over the script a couple of times and in consequence, would like to make some further observations…

…The first general impression is that the script is way too long. This, of course, I know you are already aware of. However the consensus seems to indicate that it is the front part of the script that needs some drastic pruning. I will suggest some ideas to you later on in this letter.

Now the next prevalent comment I have heard is that both the girl and the young man seem insufficiently characterized. In endeavoring to analyze this criticism, I have gathered the impression ‘there doesn’t seem to be any particular feature about the young man himself to warrant the girl going to all the trouble she does in delivering a couple of love birds.’

Another comment about him was obviously misconstrued from the wording in the script – some people looked upon him as a shy, awkward young man. Now I think this was caused because the reader failed to appreciate the fact that his manner was awkward only because in our script he behaves self-consciously about wanting to purchase such things as ‘love birds’. When I reflected upon this, it looked to me as though the joke about buying love birds and the young man’s self-consciousness about it wouldn’t come off. In other words, people would say, ‘What’s difficult about buying a pair of love birds?’ After all, they are not contraceptives! …It could be that the whole scene is too mild for the young man to make any sharp impression on the girl at all.

Evan, would you please permit me to interpose here with an observation that I think we should look out for in this script and this scene in the bird shop is a fair example of what I mean. We run the risk of having in a picture what I call ‘no scene’ scenes. By this I mean that the little sequence might have narrative value but in itself is un-dramatic. It very obviously lacks shape and it doesn’t within itself have a climax as a scene on the stage might…

…Now we have a number of these in our present script. For example, in the newspaper office in the scene between Melanie and her father I feel the audience will get nothing much out of the scene. In fact, one of the comments made was that the father was just a stock figure whose relationship with his daughter seems fairly conventional.

Now at Bodega Bay I can clearly see that we do have one or two scenes with no particular shape. These are scenes of Melanie buying temporary garments and going to the hotel for a room. They really accomplish very little and account for some of the excessive length in the front part of the picture. I feel sure these could be eliminated so that the scene when she presents herself at the school teacher’s house with only a paper bag can be dramatically capitalized. This is to say that she explains her purchases and wish for a room – after the fact.

But here again her relationship with the young man must have a very solid premise for her going to the trouble of taking a room for the night…

…Now, Evan, there is, I am sorry to say, an almost unanimous comment that the interior of the church scene should go because, apparently to the script reader, the story does not progress at all. The scene outside the church, of course, serves a very good purpose for us. It brings our couple together again and sets up the children’s party.

Incidentally, at the children’s party I think Bob Boyle, our production man, had quite an interesting thought that it would be more interesting and, I am inclined to agree with him, that the bird attack might take place during the blind-man’s buff sequence so that we get a little blindfolded girl attacked. Of course, we could have the entrance of the cake about the same time.

Generally speaking, Evan, the rest of it seems to be in pretty good shape except perhaps for some pruning here and there.

Now for some other thoughts; in order to keep the suspense alive from the very beginning I do think we ought to punctuate the sequences with some more positive ideas that will keep the audience a little on edge in the matter of ‘birds’. And, I think we could start this right from the very beginning.

I know you had an idea of this when you had Melanie walking down the street and a flock of pigeons fluttered away. Now an audience might get some significance in this or they may not but somehow I think if we are going to put in ideas of this nature they should be a little less blurred. For example: How would it be to open the picture on a San Francisco street with a series of cuts of upturned faces, some stationary, others moving slowly along, and what they are looking at is an unusual number of sea gulls flying above the buildings of the city. We could continue the upturned faces until at last we come to Melanie also looking up and pan her right into the bird shop where she could make some comment to the woman inside who dismisses it with a remark to the effect that when the weather is bad at sea they often get driven inland. Another spot that occurs to me where we could have a sharp moment – at the end of the night scene between Annie and Melanie there could be the sound of a thump on the front door. They open it to find a dead bird lying there and the scene could fade out on this. This will also tie in with Annie’s last line in the scene. There are probably some other spots which lend themselves to this kind of treatment in the earlier part of the script. Incidentally, I still think that at some moment Annie should see the cut on Melanie’s head.

You know I’ve often wondered that the Audubon Society’s attitude might be to this picture. And if we have any fears that they might be a little ‘frowning’ we might find a spot towards the end where Kathy theorizes about ‘It’s all because we put them in cages, we shoot them down, we eat them, etc.’ This, of course, leaves only one other question as to whether the Audubon Society will frown at the birds having a revengeful nature!

Well, Evan, there you are. Until we have further conversations these are all the things that I can think to put down. Naturally there may be a few more things to be done. I’m still wondering whether anything of a thematic nature should go into the script. I’m sure we are going to be asked again and again, especially by the morons, ‘Why are they doing it?’ …” –Alfred Hitchcock (Letter to Evan Hunter, as printed in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

It is worth noting that all of Hitchcock’s notes on the rough draft proved to shape the final film. The scenes that he suggested to be cut were omitted, and the additions that Hitchcock suggested are included in the final film. Outside parties were consulted about the script. Both men found the script to be lacking sufficient characterization. Hitchcock would worry about these problems well into the film’s production. Of course, Evan Hunter was rather irritated with these outsiders having anything to do with the outcome of the script.

“What I did not know was that Hitch had already solicited comment on the script from Hume Cronyn, an actor who had received ‘adaptation’ credit on two of Hitch’s previous films, Rope in 1948 and Under Capricorn in 1949. Mr. Cronyn’s comments had arrived before my revisions. In his letter of January 13, 1962, he suggested that there was ‘still room for improvement in the development and relationship of the principal characters. The implied arrogance, silliness, and selfishness of the early Melanie may need heightening so that the change to consideration, responsibility, and maturity are more marked – and more enduring.

He was merely the first who – without my knowledge or consent – stuck his finger in the concept and his foot in the whorehouse door.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Alfred Hitchcock also sought the opinion of V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett’s involvement was more pronounced than Cronyn’s, and Hunter’s ego was sufficiently bruised by his influence.

“Unknown to me, Hitch had already sent the script of The Birds to an old friend of his, V.S. Pritchett, a short story writer who used to be the book review editor for the ‘New Statesman.’ …Pritchett wrote back. He said that audiences of The Birds would get the impression that they are in two different stories – in this case a light comedy and a terror tale – that do not weld together. While Hitch pondered this startling revelation that merely defined the entire approach to the film, he asked me to take another look at the final scene, with an eye towards giving it a deeper meaning and a stronger purpose.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter certainly had a valid point when he commented that Pritchett “merely defined the entire approach to the film.” However, it might have been a red flag to Hitchcock that this approach wasn’t working (at least not in the script’s then-current state).

PRITCHETT & ‘THE SAND DUNES’

Pritchett’s involvement would again aggravate Hunter during the film’s production.

“One morning Rod Taylor came to me. ‘Did you write this scene?’ he asked, and handed me some pages. I read the scene. It takes place on a hill above the Brenner house, just prior to the bird attack on the children’s birthday party. Melanie and Mitch are alone. Miraculously, he has a martini pitcher and long-stemmed martini glasses with him. He pours, they drink. Then Melanie pours out her heart… I was happy to tell Rod I had definitely not written that scene, and had not in fact seen those pages until the moment he’d handed them to me. ‘Well, were shooting it this morning,’ he said. Over my dead body, I thought, and went to find Hitch.

He was in the production trailer with Peggy. I asked if I might talk to him privately, and then showed him the scene Rod had given me. I said I didn’t know who’d written it but that it was totally inept and devoid of any craftsmanship, that no single speech in it logically followed the speech preceding it, that a first-year film student at UCLA could write a better scene, and that I would be thoroughly embarrassed if it were to appear in a movie with my name as screenwriter.

Hitch did a straight-faced little take. Then he said, ‘Are you going to trust me or a two bit actor?’ They shot the scene that morning. It is in the picture.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter credits Hitchcock for writing the scene, but the scene was in fact written by V.S. Pritchett. The scene attempts to give Melanie additional characterization (which was admittedly needed). Unfortunately, Pritchett’s approach is rather awkward.

THE DELETED SCENE

Many drastic changes were made to Hunter’s script during the film’s production. However, most of these changes were probably improvements. One significant case in point is the omission of a scene between Melanie and Mitch.

“…There was a love scene between the girl and the man that was eliminated. It took place after the mother went off to take the little girl to school. Melanie goes down, puts on her fur coat and sees the man burning the birds in the distance. She wanders off in his direction; she obviously wants to be with him. When he is through with his job of burning the birds, I showed him coming toward her and you can read on her face her desire to receive him. Then – suddenly – he turns around and goes into the house. What’s wrong? She’s disappointed and I put that in to stress that Melanie’s really keen on Mitch. A few minutes later he emerges from the house and says, ‘I’ve put a clean shirt on because the other one smelled of birds.’

Then we continued that scene in a light comedy note, with their speculations as to why the birds were behaving in that way. They joked about the fact that the birds have a leader, that he’s a sparrow perched on a platform addressing all the birds and saying to them, ‘Birds of the world, unite. You’ve nothing to lose but your feathers…

…The scene became more serious, winding up with a kiss. Then we went on to show the mother driving back from the farm, terribly agitated. She rolls up just as the couple is exchanging another kiss, and I put a slight wince in her expression. One doesn’t – at the time – know for sure whether that’s because she’s seen them in that embrace, but subsequent developments will indicate that was the reason. Now, since the love scene was suppressed, the dialogue in the following scene between the mother and Melanie is slightly different from what it was originally…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hunter was vocal about his objection to the scene’s omission.

“From what I understand, Hitch shot this scene. But he never used it, and its absence is sorely felt. Without this scene, no one in the film ever really questions why the birds are doing this, and if our leading characters aren’t even looking for answers, then the audience will demand them. Moreover, without the only scene in the picture that would have shown our screwball lovers finally kissing seriously and passionately, there is no climax – you should pardon the expression – to all their nutty sparring and running around. We haven’t the faintest clue as to why Mitch is suddenly calling her darling for the rest of the film. We are utterly baffled.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

To be fair, Hunter is overstating his case a bit. There are a handful of moments dedicated to the questioning of the reasons behind the bird attacks. The entire Tides Restaurant scene is devoted to this purpose. There is also at least one moment when Cathy asks why the birds are terrorizing them. It is certainly enough to get the point across to even the slowest member of an audience. It is also clear from the proceeding scenes that affection between Melanie and Mitch is growing. Film audiences are sophisticated enough to understand that there are a number of things that happen off camera. One gathers that Melanie and Mitch become friendlier towards one another while Lydia is at the Fawcett farm.

Hitchcock addressed his reasons for cutting the scene during his famous interview with François Truffaut.

“…I felt that the love interlude slowed down the story. Right along, I was concerned about the fact that the word-of-mouth rumors would make the public impatient. I was worried about the audience sitting through this part of the picture and thinking to itself, “Come on. Where are the birds? Let’s get on with it… Anyway, I felt that a prolonged love scene at that point might have irritated the public.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

IMPROVISATION

Such changes weren’t typical of Alfred Hitchcock. While the director normally preferred to have every minute detail planned well in advance, he found himself making many changes while shooting The Birds. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick discuss one example in their excellent book, “Scripting Hitchcock.”

“During production [Hitchcock] also created a scene that does not exist in the Hunter screenplay in which the unseen birds attack the Brenner House, one of the tensest, most frightening scenes in the film because the characters and the audience are forced to imagine the number and ferocity of the murderous attacks outside of the house as the threatening noise of the birds fills the soundtrack.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Hitchcock discussed the shooting of this scene in a number of interviews.

“I’ve always been afraid of improvising on the set because, although one might have the time to get a new idea, there isn’t sufficient time in the studio to examine the value of such an idea. There are too many crew people around… Something happened that was altogether new in my experience: I began to study the scenario as we went along, and I saw that there were weaknesses in it. This emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me.

I began to improvise. For instance, the whole scene of the outside attack on the house by birds that are not seen was done spontaneously, right on the set. I’d almost never done anything like that before, but I made up my mind and quickly designed the movements of the people inside the room. I decided that the mother and the little girl would dart around to search for shelter. There was no place to run for cover, so I made them move about in contradictory directions, a little like rats scurrying into corners.

I deliberately shot Melanie Daniels from a distance because I wanted to make it clear that she was recoiling from nothing at all. What could she be drawing back from? She cringes back into the sofa and she doesn’t even know what she’s recoiling from.

Because I was so keyed up all of this came very easily and very quickly.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

According to Hitchcock, the most difficult aspect of shooting the scene was getting the proper reaction from the actors. However, he found a creative solution to this problem.

“We had a problem when we were shooting that scene to get the actors inside the besieged house to respond properly because we didn’t yet have the sounds of the wings and the noises made by the birds. I had a drummer put on the set, with a small side drum and a mike with a loud speaker. Whenever the actors played their scene, there was a loud drum roll to help them react.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE FAWCETT FARM

Lydia’s discovery of the corpse at the Fawcett Farm was also improved by Hitchcock’s on-set improvisation.

“Another improvisation is the mother driving up to the farm, going into the house and calling the farmer before noticing the wrecked room and discovering the farmer’s body. While we were shooting that, I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ She calls the farmer and he doesn’t answer. Well, a woman in that position wouldn’t push it any further; she’d walk out of the house. So that’s how I got the idea to keep her there by having her notice the five broken teacups hanging from the hooks.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock was occasionally inspired by real life events, which added credibility to a few of his ideas.

“While I was shooting in Bodega Bay, there was an item in a San Francisco paper about crows attacking some young lambs, and – of all places – right in the same locality where we were working. I met a farmer who told me how the crows swooped down to kill his young lambs. That’s where I got the idea for the gouged-out eyes of the dead man.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock employed an unusual method of cutting in this particular scene. There are three “staccato” jump cuts – each getting progressively closer to the dead man’s eyes.

“I did it for several reasons. I wanted a change from the zooming in, but I wanted to be prepared for censorship problems. If I ran into censorship anywhere – you, like so, you can tape it out you see. And another item interesting about that moment, I never show the woman’s reaction to it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

The scene is quite effective, and is one of the brilliant moments in the film. Of course, the soundtrack added to the scene’s impact.

“The sound track was vital just there; we had the sound of her footsteps running down the passage, with almost an echo. The interesting thing in the sound is the difference between the footsteps inside the house and on the outside. Did you notice that I had her run from the distance and then went to a close-up when she’s paralyzed with fear and inarticulate? There’s silence at that point. Then, as she goes off again, the sound of the steps will match the size of the image. It grows louder right up to the moment she gets into the truck, and then the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish. We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would.

For the arrival of the truck, I had the road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away…

…The reason we went to all that trouble is that the truck, seen from a distance like that – moving at tremendous speed – expresses the frantic nature of the mother’s moves. In the previous scene we had shown that the woman was going through violent emotion, and when she gets into the truck, we showed that this was an emotional truck. Not only by the image, but also through the sound that sustains the emotion. It’s not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that’s like a cry. It’s as though the truck were shrieking.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE TIDES RESTAURANT

Of course, many of the scenes were planned and written ahead of time. Evan Hunter’s favorite example is the scene in the “Tides Restaurant.” Various characters are assembled with Melanie, and are discussing various theories about the reason behind the bird attacks.

“…the scene in the movie that I feel is really mine is the scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist. There’s the drunk at the bar, ‘It’s the end of the world’. The fisherman who complains that the birds are playing hell with his fishing boats… That whole scene is like a one-act play, and I really love it. I wrote that after I left California, and I sent it to Hitch. And he shot it without a moment’s hesitation.” –Evan Hunter (‘Crime Time’ Interview with Barry Forshaw)

Alfred Hitchcock seems to share Hunter’s affection for the scene.

“That scene doesn’t necessarily add anything, but I felt that after the attack of the birds on the children at the birthday party, the small birds coming down the chimney, and the attack of the crows outside the school, we should give the audience a rest before going back to horror. That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs. The character of the drunk is straight out of an O’Casey play, and the elderly lady ornithologist is pretty interesting. …The scene is a little on the long side, but I feel that if the audience is absorbed in it, it is automatically shortened. I’ve always measured the length or brevity of a scene by the degree of interest it holds for the public. If they’re completely absorbed, it’s a short scene; if they’re bored; the scene is bound to be long.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE SOUNDTRACK

Hunter seemed disappointed most of Hitchcock’s decisions. As a matter of fact, many of the more brilliant aspects of the film were opposed by Hunter. For example, Hunter wasn’t pleased to hear that there wouldn’t be a traditional score for The Birds.

“We sat alone in the screening room, side by side, Hitch and I, watching the opening credits of the film. He had decided by then that there would be no score for The Birds. Unmindful of his artistic pretensions for the film, I told him I thought that would be a mistake; that music could subtly foreshadow dire events to come or stridently accompany bird attacks until we had the audience screaming. He said no. No music.

The titles had no music behind them. The titles had no music behind them. The screen was filled with fuzzy images of flying birds. There was the sound of wings whirring. There was the sound of birds squeaking and eeking. It was all very scary and portentous. Maybe he was right.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

It is this reviewer’s opinion that Hitchcock was indeed “right.” Could Hunter really not grasp the effectiveness of Hitchcock’s sound design, or is this simply another example of ‘bitter grapes’? The film’s soundtrack is one of the more thrilling aspects of The Birds. This isn’t terribly surprising. Alfred Hitchcock always paid meticulous attention to the sound design in his films.

 “After a picture is cut, I dictate what amounts to a real sound script to a secretary. We run every reel off and I indicate all the places where sounds should be heard. Until now we’ve worked with natural sounds, but now – thanks to electronic sound – I’m not only going to indicate the sound we want but also the style and nature of each sound.

For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds, we inserted the natural sounds of wings, but we stylized them so as to create greater intensity. We wanted to get a menacing wave of vibration rather than a single level. There was a variation of the noise, an assimilation of the unequal noise of the wings. Of course, I took the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all.

To describe the sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’ That’s what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to achieve that effect through the use of electronic sound.

For the final scene, in which Rod Taylor opens the door to the house for the first time and finds the birds assembled there, as far as the eye can see, I asked for silence, but not just any kind of silence. I wanted an electronic silence, a sort of monotonous low hum that might suggest the sound of the sea in the distance. It was a strange, artificial sound, which in the language of the birds might be saying, ‘We’re not ready to attack you yet, but we’re getting ready. We’re like an engine that’s purring and we may start off at any moment.’ All of this was suggested by a sound that’s so low that you can’t be sure whether you’re actually hearing it or only imagining it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE ENDING

The film’s admirable ambiguous ending was a Hitchcock creation that wasn’t in the script. Hunter had written a very different scene.

“Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car’s top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.

Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it’s covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they’re driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.

Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch’s sister says, ‘Mitch do you think they’ll be in San Francisco when we get there?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, honey,’ and that’s the last line of the movie.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

 Obviously, none of this is in the film.

“When I saw the movie for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art’s invitational screening a year later – and realized that Hitch had sacrificed my ending in favor of what he called ‘the most difficult shot’ he’d ever done, a composite of birds requiring thirty-two separate exposures against a matte painting – I was appalled. The very hip and sophisticated black-tie audience, was to say the very least, somewhat glacially polite in its reception. A stunned silence greeted the final complicated mosaic of what appeared to be 3,407 pieces of bird film. Later, when I saw the film in a commercial theatre, people actually turned to each other and mumbled, ‘Is it over? Is that it? Huh?’ I left before they realized I was the man who’d written the screenplay and mistakenly assumed the ending they had just seen was concocted by me… Hitch didn’t film the scene that I wrote because then he would have made a movie with a thrilling suspenseful ending. He wasn’t going for that. He was going for high art.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Perhaps Hunter was too close to the material. The ending is appropriately haunting (and more original) than the one devised by Evan Hunter. Hunter liked to condescend about the ending for the simple reason that it wasn’t his own idea. Hitchcock was rightfully fond of the ending, and liked to discuss it in his interviews.

“There are 371 trick-shots in it, and the most difficult one was the last shot. That took 32 different pieces of film. We had a limited number of gulls allowed. Therefore, the foreground was shot in three panel sections, left to right, up to the birds on the rail. The few gulls we had were in the first third, we re-shot it for the middle third, and for the right-hand third, using the same gulls. Just above the heads of the crows was a long, slender middle section where the gulls were spread again. Then the car going down the driveway, with the birds on each side of it, was another piece of film. The sky was another piece of film, as was the barn on the left, and so on. These were all put together in the lab.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock originally had another idea for an ending that wasn’t used.

“…I toyed with the idea of lap-dissolving on them in the car, looking, and there is the Golden Gate Bridge–covered in birds.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

SPECIAL EFFECTS

If the film is remembered today, this is largely due to the fact that the film pioneered many complicated special effects techniques. It was a huge advancement in what was possible to achieve at the time. Today, people can achieve even better results with very little effort, but this was not the case in 1963.

Alfred Hitchcock used the traveling matte process to produce many of the effects in The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock himself described this process in a lengthy article about the making of The Birds.

“…Let us assume that we’re going to photograph two men talking on the corner of Fifth Avenue, New York, and were shooting the picture in June, but the story requires a snow covered street… Now, say the picture isn’t going out until the following year. The first snows come to New York in November. The cameraman goes out and sets the camera up roughly where the two men have stood and photographs Fifth Avenue in the snow. That film is brought into the studio – the lab – and they work on what is called the optical printer. The first film that goes into the printer is the raw stuff – the unexposed film – and against that the negative of Fifth Avenue.

Now, a print is made of the two men in front of the white backing and is overdeveloped to such a degree that the two men become silhouettes. So you add that as a third film to go through the printer. Thus you have a raw film, Fifth Avenue, and this black silhouette of two men talking.

In the printer, the black portion of the men has prevented the light from going through, so that the only part exposed onto the raw film is Fifth Avenue around the two men. If you were to develop that film at that moment and run it on a screen, you would get Fifth Avenue and two white silhouettes. Of course you don’t develop it, you just rewind the film and start again.

Now, what is the negative of the two men? We shot them against a white background; therefore the white background in the negative is black. So you just put this negative and the already partly exposed raw film through a printer the second time and now you have the men being printed in the space provided for them – the unexposed portion of the film. That is what is called a traveling matte.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The film’s color cinematography introduced other challenges for Alfred Hitchcock.

“…We’re going to have children running down the street and we have the problem of overlaying the ravens. We had about thirty or forty ravens who were trained to fly from one perch to another in the studio against a plain background. But now were in color. So, in order to get a silhouette (we must have a silhouette, otherwise it will ghost – like two snaps on one film), we photograph in color against a yellow background (the same light that they use for fog lights on cars). This sodium light, as it is called, is a color that is the narrowest band on the spectrum of light and comes out black. It’s the only color that won’t photograph.

So now you have your colored image and a black background. At the same time there is a prism – a lens which makes two images. One goes through in color and the other is reflected through a red filter onto ordinary black-and-white film, so that you make your silhouette at the same time as you’re making your scene. So that when you put the two together you have the negative of the children running down the street and the silhouette of the birds printed first and the real birds afterwards. So they’re overlaid. Now, you don’t hold that scene very long – you hold it for a flash. Then you go to a close-up op one of the children and you throw a live trained bird onto the shoulder of that child. And it’s the inter-cutting, the quick inter-cutting, that gives you the illusion of the scene in close-up and in distance and so forth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

One of the justifiably famous shots in The Birds was the shot of the birds descending upon the town. The point-of-view seems to be an apathetic God. The success of the shot belongs to many people, who worked tirelessly to bring Hitchcock’s vision of the shot to life.

“…Now, we didn’t have a full town out there, we had a dockside and so forth. So we put the camera on a hill of the studio where they were building a new car park. In our scene we had a gas station on fire and a trail of flaming gas toward a car park… But all the rest was nothing – we just marked it out with lines so that people could only run in a certain direction. The matte-artist painted a painting of the view above the harbor, except he blacked out the live portion – the flame and the people running. These two – live portion and matte – are printed together. So that now, when we look at it on the screen, it’s as though you’re in a helicopter or high up in a balloon. There’s a whole town, there’s a blaze, and people running.

Now the next problem: having the birds fly down. We hired an island off the coast and put a camera on a high cliff. We brought the gulls around with fish behind the camera and then threw the fish over the cliff – and with the camera on the beach below. When this film was shown we looked at it and there it was: a cliff side, surf, [and] beach, with gulls going down.

Now, two women took this film frame by frame – each little frame. Only fifteen feet in all, but it took them three months to transfer by painting each individual bird onto a plain background. They also painted the silhouette of each bird. And that’s the way the birds were printed over the scene and they were seen going down. That lasted ten seconds on the screen – we took three months to do it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The matte painting that Hitchcock mentions was the work of Albert Whitlock. This was only one of many matte paintings that Whitlock contributed to the picture.

RECEPTION

Despite an aggressive ad campaign, The Birds received a very mixed reception upon its release. Variety’s review hinted at the kind of reception that the film would receive from “important” critics.

“Beneath all of this elaborate feather bedlam lies a Hitch cock-and-bull story that’s essentially a fowl ball.

The premise is fascinating. The idea of billions of bird-brains refusing to eat crow any longer and adopting the hunt-and-peck system, with homosapiens as their ornithological target, is fraught with potential. Cinematically, Hitchcock & Co have done a masterful job of meeting this formidable challenge. But dramatically, The Birds is little more than a shocker-for shock’s-sake.

Evan Hunter’s screenplay, from Daphne du Maurier’s story, has it that a colony of our feathered ‘friends’ over California’s Bodega Bay (it’s never clear how far-reaching this avian mafia extends) suddenly decides, for no apparent reason, to swoop down en masse on the human population, beaks first. These bird raids are captivatingly bizarre and terrifying.

Where the scenario and picture slip is in the sphere of the human element. An unnecessary elaborate romantic plot has been cooked up and then left suspended. It involves a young bachelor attorney (Rod Taylor), his sister (Veronica Cartwright), their mother (Jessica Tandy), and a plucky, mysterious playgirl (Tippi Hedren) whose arrival from San Francisco with a pair of caged lovebirds for Taylor coincides with the outbreak of avian hostility…” –Variety (December 31, 1962)

Time magazine’s review followed with a similar review of the film that can be summed up with a single sentence; “The movie flaps to a plotless end.” The review seems to site Hunter’s “screwball comedy” opening as the source of most of the trouble with the film, as is evident in the opening paragraph.

“…With a shrieking din, the lettering of the titles and credits comes on, only to be pecked from the screen by a squadron of crazed starlings. Having hinted at the ornithophobic horror to come, director Alfred Hitchcock goes nattering on with an hour of some silly plot-boiling about a flirtatious society girl (Tippi Hedren), a lovelorn schoolmarm (Suzanne Pleshette), an Oedipus wreck (Rod Taylor) and a pair of lovebirds…” –Time (Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach’s review for “Film Quarterly” was a rather lengthy diatribe against the film. It would be ill-advised to take Callenbach’s opinions too seriously. His review is redundant, and rambles for the sake of showcasing his own intelligence (which is lacking). In this reviewer’s opinion, his use of the word “Dionysiac” instead of “Dionysian” discredits him. This is of course, if his audience hasn’t already stopped reading after he mistakes Vera Miles for Janet Leigh. His condescension is irritating, even when one agrees with his opinions. I understand that shortly after the review was published, the editor considered renaming the publication “Pretension Quarterly.”

“‘The Birds is coming!’ says Hitchcock on the posters, and we enter the theater with a pleasant chortle of anticipated horror. Ah that phallic symbolism!

The result is disappointing. The film has been made; it seems to me, on two mistaken assumptions. One is that a frightening film can be made in naturalistic color, and the other is that an attack by birds carries the emotional impact of a really horrific situation. There are other mistakes too — Tippi Hedren, an atrocious and atrociously directed child, and Hitchcock’s usual inability to dramatize affectionate relationships. But some of these might have been remedied.

No doubt Hitchcock’s reasoning was that the pastoral loveliness of Bodega Bay, rendered in soft color, would make us feel more attachment to the scene when it is abruptly threatened by thousands of attacking gulls and crows: so beautiful a little town, to have such a thing happen in it! Yet the effect is precisely the reverse: it reduces the scene to postcard dimensions, so that we care less rather than more, because it is only picturesque. The ratty motel in Psycho, by contrast, was a setting apt for the most extreme horrors; in itself it was a ratty motel only, yet quickly — through the lighting, the hole in the wall, the excellent playing of Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins — the film slid into an area of real emotional impact. The Birds never does. The trick work tries hard — with, reportedly, as many as five simultaneous super-impositions of various birds attacking. But the film has too many obvious loopholes. Above all, why does Rod Taylor, presented as an intelligent and experienced man, not devise with the townsmen — who are largely fishermen and obviously very competent about mechanical matters — any reasonable attempted defense? Who ventured to imagine that seagull beaks could pierce heavy planks? Such nagging mundane questions arise, obviously, because the film is unable to tap in, as a skillful thriller does, on unconscious fears. (Some women seem to be frightened by The Birds, but the general report is that it isn’t very scary; Psycho, on the other hand, terrified almost everybody, though its pseudo-psychiatric ending relieved the tension by being inadvertently comic.) A flock of attacking birds may be surprising, since we all have a somewhat rosy picture of the gentleness of birds, but they remain just a lot of attacking birds; they are natural, external forces to be combated somehow or other, or fled from; they do not share the potentially supernatural mysteries and terrors of those things which are human or inhuman. Hence when Hitchcock makes Tippi walk slowly up the stairs and enter the bird-infested room, it is not at all the obsessive action of Janet Leigh going down the stairs to Mrs. Bates in Psycho; her action leads not toward a psychic resolution of fears, but only to a bloody fight. (The discovery of the body of the feed-dealer, at the end of another corridor, is much more effective.)

Now Hitchcock reportedly concedes that the picture is somewhat allegorically intended. Certainly the McCarthyite grotesque of the mother who accuses Tippi of witchcraft has too many overtones to be neglected. The ending without an end title also, presumably, is intended to make one reflect upon fatal perils seemingly averted — when will the next wave of birds strike? (It is worth remembering that the military slang for missiles is “birds.”) Yet most such aspects of the film would have to be interpreted as cynical triviality if we took this seriously — the lovebirds as a token at the end? — the cops as the bumblers of Civil Defense? — or even the birds is irrational evil or dionysiac forces? No, it must be merely more of Master Alfred’s jokes, perhaps thrown in to insure respectful treatment in Cahiers du Cinema.

The trick work deserves special scrutiny in itself, since the picture is largely a tour de force on this level. Here too Hitchcock falls short. It is not easy to make us believe that birds, normally cautious and timid creatures, might attack men — who after all, even if they were armed with nothing but ball-bats or old 2×4’s, are among the earth’s most dangerous inhabitants. We therefore scrutinize the trick shots with great care: how exactly would birds behave in such a situation? And of course they don’t behave at all in the crucially necessary sense. They seem to fly by at more or less the correct angles to be attacking; they glide in a way almost lifelike enough to convince us; their beaks are made to slash (like the knife in Psycho) against Tippi’s outstretched stigmata-ready hands; their bodies bang into the glass of the telephone booth. Another Hitchcock gargoyle, a hermaphroditic bird-watcher, and skeptic, spells out for us the gigantic number of birds in the world — in which might lie real danger. But in fact, of course, we never actually see any single live bird unambiguously committing a hostile action, like standing there and visibly pecking at somebody’s eyeball. If we had, the effect would have been electric and genuinely horrible, for it would have clearly contradicted our stereotyped feelings about birds, and it is upon such unsettlements of our usual control reactions that the maker of horrific films must play. But since Hitchcock cannot accomplish this, he cannot really touch us, and we are left sitting there amused at good old Alfred’s ingenious but old-fashioned cutting tricks.

These tricks are deployed without the ease and verve of Psycho, moreover. Whereas Psycho is a sickening slide into ever more terrifying events, until the ridiculous psychiatry sets in at the end, The Birds uses up its excitement early, then tries to rise to what is only an anticlimax — the escape of the four individuals in the sports car. One expects, as they inch their way out of the house surrounded by thousands of quietly clucking gulls, that Tippi will yell in terror, or the child going back for the lovebirds will disturb the gulls, and that they will attack again, in a kind of doomsday fantasy which has been rather common in fiction lately. However, the four do get away — at least for now. It is hard to care much; one wonders idly what has been happening elsewhere, if anything. The radio has said that apparently the plague is only local. But nothing follows; the curtains close.

Visually the film is far from Hitchcock at his best. Some of it — like the boat ride Tippi takes across Bodega Bay — is downright clumsy; some is merely tedious, like the protracted conversation in the schoolteacher’s living room. There are inexplicably shaky tracking shots, and on the whole the film has the feel of being skimped both in the shooting and in the shot-planning. Tippi Hedren is a pretty blonde of very modest abilities, working here slightly below the Grace Kelly class level the film tries to ascribe to her. Rod Taylor is a large but emotionally featureless object, and the rest are routine characterizations signifying nothing.

As often in Hitchcock, there are a lot of irrelevant characters and details — a former lover of the hero’s, who is firmly established only to get her eyes pecked out while the child is watching; TV-level ‘sophisticated’ dialogue between hero and heroine; widowed anxious castrating mother, etc.

Worse still, the dialogue has a way of undermining the film. Somebody reports a past plague of gulls in a nearby city — or were they just lost in the fog? (At any rate, they flew away peacefully next day.) The radio reports, later in the film, seem to imply that the outbreak of bird attacks is a local matter — dreadful for the handful of people involved, no doubt, but not some great upheaval of nature. The police of the nearby county-seat are skeptical and rather make light of the whole thing. This accentuates our concern for the safety of the principals, but it detracts from the over-all sense of danger. A really skillful film frightener takes pains to make his dangers open-ended — there is no telling how bad things might get! — and suggestive of ultimate horrors and revelations; he avoids elements in the film which will narrow things down to even possibly controllable dimensions. Orson Welles’s Martian broadcast is still a model in these matters — it scared some 40,000 people into leaving New York City — and makers of films about Menaces would do well to study it. Hitchcock tries to play in this league and fails — predictably so, perhaps, for his forte is the projection of the personally murderous impulse. Psycho, in its own sick way, was a small masterpiece, despite its denouement. But a mess of inconclusive phallic symbolism like Hitchcock’s new film is — let’s say it once again — for the birds.” -Ernest Callenbach (Film Quarterly, 1963)

The review published in The London Times (aka The Times) provides us with a bridge between the negative and the positive. The review begins by lauding many aspects of production, but qualifies the film’s merits with a number of criticisms. In the end, it labels the film “second-grade Hitchcock.”

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock seldom fails to pull a surprise out of his sleeve, and his latest film is no exception. ‘The Birds is coming!’ scream the posters, and evil-looking black silhouettes hang over us; ‘It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made’, Mr. Hitchcock warns us (with characteristic ambiguity) from hoardings. So, naturally, we go along prepared at once to be scared out of our wits. And what happens? For the first three-quarters of an hour, virtually nothing. In his most insolently insidious fashion Mr. Hitchcock begins with throwaway social comedy shading little by little into drama… It is all very cool, and precise, and leisurely. And so it goes on for exactly 45 minutes. We know these people, from films and from life; we know where we are, and can prepare with reasonable equanimity for a fairly conventional thriller with, presumably, science-fiction touches.

Then the birds come. First one, a stray seagull which for no apparent reason swoops out of a clear blue sky and pecks the heroine. Then other little attacks here and there. Then suddenly a sort of collective frenzy which all at once seizes great flocks of otherwise harmless birds — the sort of birds one disregards and walks happily among on the pavements of any city in the world — and sets them tearing and clawing at a humanity totally unprepared for any such betrayal. For betrayal it seems. We are used to supposing that nature is there for us; “man superior walks amid the glad creation” and mere animals and plants know their places. But how fragile is the structure of our complacency; what would happen if something went wrong and the balance of power we so casually take on trust were changed overnight?

This is the theme of The Birds, and it is in general brilliantly handled. The old master’s skill in starting from the ordinary only to drop us terrifyingly into the extraordinary has seldom been better deployed. No traditional menace is allowed to intrude; there are none of the birds that normally frighten us, no suggestion that these birds have somehow acquired superior intelligence or are the agents of a superior intelligence. They are throughout just birds, ordinary birds, behaving as birds might given the one basic, by no means incredible assumption that something — some form of rabies, perhaps — might sweep, through them rather as myxomatosis did the rabbit population of the world. Once one accepts the possibility of this, all the rest falls into place as a cunningly unanswerable morality; the mushroom-shaped cloud may be the least of our troubles — that at least is part of our own house and we can, if we will, keep it in order; rather, we should remember that we occupy that house only on sufferance.

The conception of the film, then, is compelling.

What prevents it nevertheless from matching the most extraordinary of Mr. Hitchcock’s achievements — Psycho, Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry — is an occasional faltering in the execution. Though a lot of the process work needed to show the birds attacking is superbly done, there are odd shots which look so patently fake that they weaken our confidence in the whole. Then the cast seems, in comparison with those Mr. Hitchcock has lately been assembling, a trifle colourless: Mr. Rod Taylor’s lawyer hero is rather a dull stick and Miss “Tippi” Hedren, another of those cool-but-sizzling-underneath blondes that Mr. Hitchcock delights to feature in his films, is less appealing than many: one takes the point that she is not meant to be a very agreeable character, but at least the qualities she does have might come over more vividly. And finally the script (by Mr. Evan Hunter, vaguely suggested by a story of Miss Daphne du Maurier) does lie a little heavy, especially towards the end of the first movement, when all the characters spend too much time un-illuminatingly discussing their relations with their own and each other’s mothers.

But when all this is said, second-grade Hitchcock is still about twice as exciting as first-grade anyone else. There are marvelous ideas (like the irony of the heroine fluttering frantically, “caged” in a phone-booth by savage, blood-lusting birds) and always the sheer drive and discipline of his visual story-telling. And, to come back to the basics which still mean most to the average filmgoer when the name of Mr. Hitchcock is mentioned, it can be safely guaranteed to make even the most stout-hearted think twice the next time he starts casually to brush aside a couple of stray pigeons that cross his path.” –The Times (August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut was extremely kind to the film in his review for Cahiers du Cinéma, but admitted that the film “isn’t perfect.”

“…Hitchcock has never won an Oscar, although he is the only living filmmaker whose films, when they are reissued twenty years after their first appearance, are as strong at the box office as new films. His last film, The Birds, is admittedly not perfect. Rod Taylor and ‘Tippi’ Hedren are imperfectly matched, and the sentimental story (as almost always, husband hunting) suffers from it. But what an injustice there is in the generally bad reception. I am so disappointed that no critic admired the basic premise of the film: ‘Birds attack people.’ I am convinced that cinema was invented so that such a film could be made. Everyday birds — sparrows, seagulls, crows — take to attacking ordinary people, the inhabitants of a seacoast village. This is an artist’s dream; to carry it off requires a lot of art, and you need to be the greatest technician in the world.

Alfred Hitchcock and his collaborator, Evan Hunter (Asphalt Jungle), kept only the idea of Daphne du Maurier’s short story: seaside birds take to attacking humans, first in the countryside, then in the town, at the exits of schools, and even in their homes.

No film of Hitchcock’s has ever shown a more deliberate progression: as the action unfolds, the birds become blacker and blacker, more and more numerous, increasingly evil. When they attack people, they prefer to go for their eyes. Basically fed up with being captured and put in cages — if not eaten — the birds behave as if they had decided to reverse the roles.

Hitchcock thinks that The Birds is his most important film. I think so too in a certain way — although I’m not sure. Starting with such a powerful mold, Hitch realized that he had to be extremely careful with the plot so that it would be more than a pretext to connect scenes of bravura or suspense. He created a very successful character, a young San Francisco woman, sophisticated and snobbish, who (in enduring all these bloody experiences) discovers simplicity and naturalness.

The Birds can be considered a special-effects film, indeed, but the special effects are realistic. In fact, Hitchcock’s mastery of the art grows greater with each film and he constantly needs to invent new difficulties for himself. He has become the ultimate athlete of cinema.

In actual fact, Hitchcock is never forgiven for making us afraid, deliberately making us afraid. I believe, however, that fear is a “noble emotion” and that it can also be “noble” to cause fear. It is “noble” to admit that one has been afraid and has taken pleasure in it. One day, only children will possess this nobility.” -François Truffaut (1963)

It comes as a surprise that Bosley Crowther was another of the film’s champions.

“…Making a terrifying menace out of what is assumed to be one of nature’s most innocent creatures and one of man’s most melodious friends, Mr. Hitchcock and his associates have constructed a horror film that should raise the hackles of the most courageous and put goose-pimples on the toughest hide.

Whether Mr. Hitchcock intended this picture of how a plague of birds almost ruins a peaceful community to be symbolic of how the world might be destroyed (or perilously menaced) by a sudden disorder of nature’s machinery is not apparent in the picture. Nor is it made readily clear whether he meant the birds to represent the classical Furies that were supposed to pursue the wicked on this earth.

I prefer to suspect the latter, although it isn’t in Mr. Hitchcock’s style to inject allegorical meanings or social significance in his films…

…But whether or not it is intended that you should find significance in this film, it is sufficiently equipped with other elements to make the senses reel. Mr. Hitchcock, as is his fashion, has constructed it beautifully, so that the emotions are carefully worked up to the point where they can be slugged…

…Notice how clear and naturalistic the narrative elements are: a plausible confrontation, beautiful scenery, a literal enactment of a playful intrigue — all very nicely arranged.

Then, sneakily, Mr. Hitchcock tweaks us with a tentative touch of the bizarre. The plausible is interrupted by a peculiar avian caprice. A seagull attacks a young woman. Flocks of angry gulls whirl in the air. A swarm of sparrows swoops down a chimney and whirrs madly through the living room. And, then, before we know it, he is flying in shock waves of birds and the wild, mad, fantastic encounter with a phenomenon of nature is on.

There may be no explanation for it (except that symbolic one, perhaps), but the fierceness and frightfulness of it are sufficient to cause shocks and chills. And that is, no doubt, what Mr. Hitchcock primarily intends.

The cast is appropriate and sufficient to this melodramatic intent. …And those birds! Well, you’ve never seen such actors! They are amazingly malevolent feathered friends.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, April 1, 1963)

 Andrew Sarris also admired the film upon its release.

The Birds is here (at the Palace and Sutton), and what a joy to behold a self-contained movie which does not feed parasitically on outside cultural references—Chekhov, Synge, O’Neill, Genet, Behan, Melville, or what have you. Drawing from the relatively invisible literary talents of Daphne Du Maurier and Evan Hunter, Alfred Hitchcock has fashioned a major work of cinematic art, and “cinematic” is the operative term here, not “literary” or “sociological.” There is one sequence, for example, where the heroine is in an outboard motor boat churning across the bay while the hero’s car is racing around the shore road to intercept her on the other side. This race, in itself pure cinema, is seen entirely from the girl’s point of view. We see only what she can see from the rowboat. Suddenly, near shore, the camera picks up a sea gull swooping down on our heroine. For just a second, the point of view is shifted, and we are permitted to see the bird before its victim does. The director has apparently broken an aesthetic rule for the sake of a shock effect—gull pecks girl. Yet this momentary incursion of the objective on the subjective is remarkably consistent with the meaning of the film.

The theme, after all, is complacency, as the director has stated on innumerable occasions . . . As in Psycho, Hitchcock succeeds in implicating his audience to such an extent that the much-criticized, apparently anticlimactic ending of the film finds the audience more blood-thirsty than the birds.” -Andrew Sarris (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)

LEGACY

Today, The Birds is simply accepted as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important films. Because it is an important work that made advancements in what could be achieved on the screen, people consider The Birds to be of his best films. Donald Spoto even claimed that it is one of the director’s masterpieces.

“…The result is perhaps Hitchcock’s least accessible motion picture, for it reveals its richness like a demanding art novel or a complex symphony, only after considerable effort. Even ardent Hitchcockians among those mystified and disappointed by this picture, although The Birds is certainly among his half-dozen masterpieces and one of the purest, most darkly lyrical films ever created. Part of the problem may be Hitchcock’s refusal to compromise, for The Birds is nothing like the traditional narrative with a beginning, a middle and a firm conclusion… (Discussing The Birds with the author of this book, Federico Fellini called it an apocalyptic poem and affirmed it as his favorite among Hitchcock’s works and one of the cinema’s greatest achievements.)” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

While this reviewer does not subscribe to popular belief that The Birds is one of the master’s best efforts, it is an endlessly interesting work that rewards viewers with new revelations each time that it is seen. After all, second tier Hitchcock is still much better than most other films (especially these days).

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork that improves on the artwork used for the various DVD releases of the film.

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

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There is very little room for complaint (especially concerning the individual release).

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Birds is a troublesome title to judge in terms of picture quality. The film is marred to some extent by the special effects photography. Some shots are naturally second, third, and even fourth generation images. Obviously, these images will not be as immaculate as one expects from Blu-ray transfers. This reviewer cannot hold this against the transfer, even if some of these images aren’t as pristine as one might prefer. The image is a bit softer than one expects in high definition, but much of this is due to the production photography. This transfer is vastly superior to previous DVD releases of the film, and warrants an upgrade. There is more detail evident in the transfer, and aliasing is less of an issue here. The picture contrast is also vastly superior than it has been in previous releases of the film. Colors seem to be accurately rendered, and black levels are deep and lovely. Some shots do exhibit a bit of unattractive noise, but these incidents do not represent the presentation in its entirety. There has also been a bit of digital tampering, and there is an occasional artifact. This is never distracting, but it is somewhat unfortunate. This transfer might not be great, but it is certainly a vast improvement. It would be a mistake to expect much more than this.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The faithful DTS-HD 2.0 Mono Master Audio track is fabulous. Certain audiences might prefer a 5.1 mix, but this track best represents the film as it was intended to be experienced upon the film’s release. The sounds are always crisp and clear, and dialogue is always intelligible. The sound effects are full and have an aggression that one might expect in more modern films (even if they are focused through the front speakers). While a 5.1 mix would certainly be an enjoyable experience, this loss-less Mono track does the job admirably.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

All About The Birds – (SD) – (1:19:49) –

Laurent Bouzereau’s feature-length documentary about the making of The Birds is incredibly comprehensive. It covers every aspect of production in explicit detail. The program was produced at a time when supplemental features were actually quite wonderful (instead of mere fluff pieces). Patricia Hitchcock, ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Rod Taylor, Veronica Cartwright, Evan Hunter, Ray Berwick, Robert Boyle, Hilton Green, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Harold Michelson, Howard Smit, Steven C. Smith, and Robin Wood all share memories, or provide their expertise about the film. The viewer will also hear Alfred Hitchcock discuss the film’s ending with Peter Bogdanovich. The disc would be worth its asking price if this were the only supplement included! This documentary is second only to Bouzereau’s similar program about Psycho… and it is a very close second.

The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie – (HD) – (14:23) –

This featurette is exclusive to the Blu-ray of The Birds, and is essentially an analysis of the film’s place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. The piece makes the argument that The Birds is the master’s “monster movie.” It is nice to have it included here, but it isn’t one of the discs better supplements.

‘Tippi’ Hedren’s Screen Test (SD) – (9:57) –

This footage from ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s screen test (featuring Martin Balsam) is an absolute gem. Alfred Hitchcock fans should find this footage to be absolutely essential, and will be thrilled to have it in their collection.

Suspense Story: National Press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:54) –

This newsreel includes a humorous speech that Alfred Hitchcock gave for the National Press Club. It is both interesting and enjoyable.

The Birds is Coming (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:17) –

This newsreel features footage that highlights pigeon races that publicized The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock and ‘Tippi’ Hedren witness the event.

Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Excerpts – (SD) – (13:58) –

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films.

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics – (HD) – (9:13) –

This featurette is essentially a commercial for the Universal catalog, and discusses the restoration of a few Universal films (including The Birds). The few nuggets of information that are related to the viewer concern the restoration process.

100 Years of Universal: The Lot – (HD) – (9:26) –

This featurette is essentially a fluff piece about the Universal lot, but it does include a few brief moments of interesting footage that makes it worth watching.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (5:11) –

The theatrical trailer for The Birds is an incredibly creative promotional film featuring Alfred Hitchcock discussing the history of man’s relationship with the birds. It is of course done with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. It is truly excellent, and this disc would be incomplete without it.

Deleted Scene – (SD) – (4:20) –

This deleted scene featuring Melanie and Mitch was shot, but no longer exists (at least not to anyone’s current knowledge). Therefore, the scene is presented as a sort of slide show with excerpts from the script and images from the scene.

Original Ending – (SD) – (3:40) –

Since the original ending was never shot, we are given a slide show presentation of script pages and conceptual sketches that illustrate what the ending would have been like.

Storyboards – (SD) – (24:21) –

Audiences are given a slide show comparing various storyboards with images from the film.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

Another slide show of production photos, stills, advertisements, posters, and other images is also included.

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Final Words:

The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important efforts, and fans will want to include this Blu-ray in their libraries. The special features included on the disc are truly excellent, and the transfer is a definite upgrade from previous DVD releases of the film.

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Source Materials:

Article (The Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

Daphne du Maurier (The Birds)

Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 18, 1961)

Alfred Hitchcock Using Sentinel’s Seabird Story (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 21, 1961)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Charles L.P. Silet (MysteryNet)

Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Interview (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Barry Forshaw (Crime Time)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Review (Variety, December 31, 1962)

Review (Time, Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach Review (Film Quarterly, 1963)

Review (The Times, August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut Review (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1963)

Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, April 1, 1963)

Andrew Sarris Review (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Tony Lee Moral (The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds)

Review By: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho

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The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. The exact same disc has recently been re-released with the same transfer, supplements, and artwork (minus the 50th Anniversary label). The only difference between the two releases is that the more recent edition comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

Steelbook Cover

There is also a Limited Steelbook Edition of Psycho. This release contains the same transfer and supplements as the previous discs, but will be presented in a steelbook case with new artwork.

Steelbook Back Cover

For more a detailed review on all three releases:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition.