Blu-ray Review: Notorious – The Criterion Collection

Spine #137
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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: January 15, 2019

Region: Region A

Length: 01:41:37

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 29.73 Mbps

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

The film was later given a lackluster Blu-ray release by MGM Home Entertainment both as part of a three-film set entitled, The Classic Collection and as an individual release. This new Criterion edition is from a new 4K restoration transfer of the film and represents an upgrade in quality.

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“In spy films—in all spy films—we have what is called ‘The MacGuffin.’ The MacGuffin, if you go way back, can be the plans of the fault over-looking the pass if it’s in the time of Rudyard Kipling. Or it can be, at the end of [The] 39 Steps, a lot of jumble concerning an airplane secret. It doesn’t matter what you put in. It’s the MacGuffin…

…And the word MacGuffin comes from two men in an English railway compartment, and there’s a baggage rack overhead, and one of the men looks and says, ‘Excuse me, sir. What’s that strange looking parcel above your head?’ And the man looks and says, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’ ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well, it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ So the man says, ‘Well, there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ He said, ‘Then that’s no MacGuffin.’ It doesn’t mean anything.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, Interview, September 1974)

The MacGuffin doesn’t concern the audience, but it certainly created trouble for Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht when they were working together on the script. It took them quite a bit of time to come up with it, and many of the most suspenseful and iconic sequences in Notorious were born out of their eventual choice. Their source material—a story by John Taintor Foote entitled The Song of the Dragon—wasn’t any help at all.

“At the beginning the producer had given me an old-fashioned story, ‘The Song of the [Dragon]’ that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. It was the story of a young woman who had fallen in love with the son of a wealthy New York society woman. The girl was troubled about a secret in her past. She felt that her great love would be shattered if ever the young man or his mother found out about it. What was the secret? Well, during the war, the government counterspy service had approached a theatrical impresario to find them a young actress who would act as an agent; her mission was to sleep with a certain spy in order to get hold of some valuable information. The agent had suggested this young girl and she had accepted the assignment. So now, filled with apprehensions about the whole thing, she goes back to her agent and tells him all about her problem, and he, in turn, tells the whole story to the young man’s mother. The story winds up with the aristocratic mother saying, ‘I always hoped that my son would find the right girl, but I never expected him to marry a girl as fine as this!’

…Well, after talking it over with Ben Hecht, we decide that the idea we’ll retain from this story is that the girl is to sleep with a spy in order to get some secret information.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

saturday evening post - november 12th and 19th, 1921 (part 1 and 2 of the story)

John Taintor Foote’s “The Song of the Dragon” was a two-part short story that was serialized in the November 12th and 19th, 1921 issues of The Saturday Evening Post.

It’s interesting to note how incredibly well Hitchcock remembered the details of this particular story considering how little he and Hecht actually borrowed from it (although he incorrectly remembered the title of “The Song of the Flame”). However, there is quite a lot that he doesn’t mention. Matthew H. Bernstein provided an even more detailed synopsis in an essay entitled “Unrecognizable Origins,” but those hoping to find similarities between it and the film will find themselves at a loss.

“Foote’s tale is narrated by veteran stage producer William Kinder, who begins the story pondering the impossibility of casting for an ingénue in a new play: experienced actresses are too old to be plausible in the part, and new actresses are too inexperienced to pull it off. He is interrupted by a visit from federal Agent Smith, who asks Kinder to ask an accomplished stage star with whom Kinder worked and was in love to sleep with the German head of a ring of saboteurs, who currently pretends to be a British playboy living the high life on Fifth Avenue. Meanwhile, Kinder grants an audition to an unknown actress on whom he takes pity when she is knocked out in his office.

Kinder’s former paramour rejects the idea angrily and stomps out; the ingénue, Sylvia Dodge, auditions and turns out to be an astonishing performer; and as Kinder is making plans with her for their box office success, Agent Smith turns up again to follow up on his request. Though Kinder gives him the bad news, both men witness Dodge’s spontaneous expression of her intense desire to do something to help the young American recruits marching through Manhattan before going off to fight in World War I. Before Kinder can stop him, Smith has whisked Dodge away for the assignment. Part 1 of the story ends here.

Part 2, published a week later, picks up with Kinder angry that Dodge, having accomplished her espionage mission, has not returned as she has promised to his office to resume her incipient career. He chews out Agent Smith because she has chosen to entertain the troops instead. A scene follows between Dodge and her new beau, Captain Eugene Weyeth. The son of a wealthy New York family, Weyeth proposes to Dodge; she holds him off with the promise of eventual marriage and shows up in Kinder’s office to ask his help. She rightly suspects that the captain’s parents will be suspicious of her and will reject her when they learn, as they will, of her sleeping with the enemy. Kinder accompanies Dodge to the Weyeths’ apartment, where she tearfully explains her past service to her country, producing a letter of commendation from the president as proof. The Weyeths accept her with enthusiasm, and the story ends.” –Matthew H. Bernstein (Unrecognizable Origins, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Obviously, the Academy knew what they were doing when they chose to nominate the film in the Best Original Screenplay category—this was truly an original story that owed very little to Foote’s work. It is no wonder that Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht struggled with the film’s plot for such a long while. They simply couldn’t figure out what their Nazi villains would be trying to accomplish in Rio. What would Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) discover when behind enemy lines? Countless ideas were tossed around, and one of these even made it into the earliest drafts of the script. Unfortunately, that earlier MacGuffin lacked simplicity.

“As always, we proceeded by trial and error, going off in several different directions that turned out to be too complex… Our original intention had been to… show groups of German refugees training in secret camps in South America with the aim of setting up an enemy army. But we couldn’t figure out what they were going to do with the army once it was organized. So we dropped the whole idea in favor of a MacGuffin that was simpler, but concrete and visual: a sample of uranium concealed in a wine bottle…

I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project some place in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium MacGuffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Of course, both Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht were precisionists in many respects and wanted their idea validated by some higher authority. What’s more, they had a number of questions about various details concerning their then-hypothetical bomb.

“…As I’m not sure about this uranium and how big an atom bomb is, I put my hat on and go to the California Institute of Technology, where the most important scientist is working: Doctor Milliken, director of the Manhattan project. Naturally, I don’t know that he’s directing the Manhattan project. I don’t even know the Manhattan project exists. I only know that in New Mexico there exists a secret place where everyone goes in and no one comes out—a journalist told me about it. So I go in, ‘Good day, doctor. How are you?’ I shake hands with the doctor, who has a bust of Einstein in the corner of the room, and I ask him, ‘Doctor, how big would an atom bomb be?’ The scene that follows! He jumps up, yelling, ‘Do you want to be arrested? Do you want to get me arrested too?’ Then he spends an hour explaining to me that it was impossible to make the atom bomb, that the atom bomb never would be made, and that consequently I should not make the atom bomb my MacGuffin. I said all right. But I still had the bottle of uranium in the scenario, [and it was] a dramatic sequence. I didn’t want to give up the uranium, and so I made the MacGuffin the Atom Bomb anyway, and two years later the bomb exploded on Hiroshima.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock: Mr. Chastity, The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, 1963)

Interestingly, the director later learned that the FBI had him under surveillance for three months after that fateful visit. In any case, the entire script seemed to fall into place once they finally decided upon using Uranium for as their gimmick.

“The MacGuffin sparked the writers. Tossing out the opera house scene where Sebastian first realizes that Alicia is a spy [in earlier drafts of the script], Hecht and Hitchcock devised a suspenseful episode that chillingly involved Alicia. Late one night, having learned that Sebastian keeps in his basement a mysterious substance pertinent to the group’s scientific research, Alicia explores the wine cellar alone. She accidentally breaks a bottle and spills its contents—‘sand’—to the floor. American intelligence identifies the substance as uranium. In April 1945, a month before the military began work on the deployment of the atomic bomb, two months before certain of Churchill’s advisors knew of it, and three months before the Alamogordo test that demonstrated its efficacy, Hecht and Hitchcock brought uranium and atomic warfare to Notorious.” –Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

The aforementioned sequence would be fine-tuned in a number of ways. Most importantly, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) was eventually incorporated into this portion of the film, and the idea of hiding the uranium in a wine bottle suggested a motif that Hitchcock employed throughout the film’s duration. Better yet, the details and minutia regarding the atomic bomb ended up being completely unimportant as the only element that was used in the plot was the uranium ore. Unfortunately, none of this kept David O. Selznick from raising an eyebrow at the idea.

“…The producer said, ‘What in the name of goodness is that?’ I said, ‘This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.’ And he asked, ‘What atom bomb?’ This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima… The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it. Finally, I said, ‘Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.’ And I pointed out that if it had not been a wartime story, we could have hinged our plot on the theft of diamonds, that the gimmick was unimportant. Well, I failed to convince the producers, and a few weeks later the whole project was sold to RKO. In other words, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, the script, Ben Hecht, and myself, we were sold as a package.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

This is undoubtedly an oversimplification as there were a variety of factors that contributed to Selznick’s decision to sell the project (the biggest of which was likely the producer’s financial situation at the time). He was pouring money and energy into Duel in the Sun as he felt that this film could best Gone with the Wind. In any case, the producer simply wasn’t as invested in the project and decided to shop the package around to various studios. He tried selling the film’s to the largest studios in Hollywood before finally selling it to RKO for $800,000 and fifty percent of the film’s gross earnings.

In all fairness to Selznick, he wasn’t the only producer in Hollywood to be put off by the film’s use of uranium.

“I was sailing on the Queen Elizabeth, and I ran into a man called Joseph Hazen, who was an associate of producer Hal Wallis [of Warner Brothers]. He said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to find out where you got the idea for the atom bomb a year before Hiroshima. When they offered us the Notorious script, we turned it down because we thought it was such a goddamn foolish thing to base a movie on.’ … I answered, ‘Well, all it goes to show is that you were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story. That mistake of yours cost you a lot of money, because the movie cost two million dollars to make and grossed eight million dollars for the producers.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that David O. Selznick hated the uranium MacGuffin, Leonard Leff argues that this is an erroneous claim in the pages of “Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood.

“Selznick not only called the decision to use uranium and the bomb ‘a tremendous thing,’ he even urged Hecht and Hitchcock to devise a culminating scene in which the Germans reveal the power of their discovery: they use ‘a bomb that could be held in the palm of one’s hand’ to blow up an entire mountain. An earlier draft had contained an allusion to such an experiment. Selznick now wanted to use the trick department to realize it. Exploding the bomb ‘makes the whole thing real,’ he told Hecht and Hitchcock, ‘and will give the picture size and spectacle.’” –Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

It is true that Selznick eventually came around to the idea of the uranium, but there are two very important points that Leff manages to glaze over. The first of these points has to do with the fact that he seems to have become enthusiastic about this idea after selling the project to RKO (who had taken over the project in mid-July). Selznick’s newfound enthusiasm seems to have come soon after the fateful events that occurred soon after this in early August. After the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima on the sixth and then on Nagasaki on the ninth, the producer began seeing dollar signs (remember, that he would still receive fifty percent of the film’s profits).

The script was still being developed at this time and even saw an unused polish by Clifford Odets before Ben Hecht returned to the project to undo his alterations. This setback added to an already lengthy writing period, and Selznick urged RKO to light a fire under Hitchcock and Hecht so that Notorious could be one of the first films to the box-office to exploit this topical atrocity. What’s more, he wanted to build up the MacGuffin with the aforementioned embellishments. He wanted spectacle—and this brings us to that second “glazed over” point—the producer’s desire to build up and elaborate upon the MacGuffin betrays his misunderstanding of what a MacGuffin actually is and also what the film was supposed to be about. This was the point that Hitchcock was trying to make: Notorious isn’t about uranium ore. It isn’t about atomic warfare. The audience isn’t concerned with such things beyond the fact that it puts the film’s heroine in mortal danger.

The story itself concerns itself with another kind of politics: sexual politics. Many critics and scholars prefer to discuss the film’s themes regarding the conflict of “love versus duty,” but there are more interesting conflicts at the heart of Notorious. It is a film about the toxicity of male insecurity, passive-aggressive behavior, and the games that couples tend to play with one another. Of course, there are moments of serenity in the film—including a celebrated kissing sequence that represents the calm before a storm that lasts throughout the rest of the film’s duration. It is one of the film’s most remarkable passages, and the audience hates to see the couple part when it is over:

screenplay excerpt - the kissing embrace

The scene was so much more than a way around the censor’s rule that no kiss should last longer than three seconds. It was born out of an understanding that such moments are fragile and fleeting. Alicia doesn’t want anything to interrupt this moment, because she knows that the wall of ice that Devlin has built around his heart is melting. She also knows that another cold front could blow through at any moment. It is no wonder why the director seemed to relish discussing the scene with journalists throughout the rest of his long career.

“It’s always seemed to me that when two people embrace, they don’t want to let go… I distinctly remember where I got the idea of not letting them go—of having the woman not let go of the man, even though he was on the telephone. It was long before I made the film. Before World War II, and I was on a train in France going from Boulogne to Paris and it was on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the train was going through the station of Etapes, moving quite slowly, when I saw a man and a woman, arm in arm, and he was urinating against a wall but the girl never let go of him. She was glancing around, looking at him and what he was doing now and then, but she would not move her arm away from his, she did not want to break that [moment].” –Alfred Hitchcock (Remembrance of Murders Past: An Interview With Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, December 14, 1969)

Unfortunately, the moment is eventually broken as Devlin dutifully leaves to meet with his superiors so that they can give him Alicia’s assignment: she is to “land” Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who was once an associate of Alicia’s father. The agents hope that this will allow her to learn his secrets. The scene that follows shows us a side of Devlin that he doesn’t show Alicia—he stands up for her, but he isn’t resolute in his argument:

screenplay excerpt - defending her honor

In the filmed version, Prescott doesn’t ask “Have you some personal interest in Alicia Huberman?” He replaces this with “Why do you think she won’t do it?” When Devlin answers that she hasn’t had any experience, Prescott cheekily responds, “Come now. What experience does she lack, do you think?” Of course, this question cuts to the heart of Devlin’s own insecurities, and he gives up his argument completely when he is told that Sebastian was once in love with Alicia. His thawing wall of ice freezes back completely upon hearing this information.

This sets up what is one of the key scenes (no pun intended) in the relationship between our two primary protagonists wherein both Alicia and Devlin play a game of emotional chicken. They love each other, but Devlin does not want to tell Alicia his feelings and later learn that she cannot be true to him. He has given Alicia her assignment: She is to bed a Nazi agent in order to find out secrets about his organization:

screenplay excerpt - testing each other

Alicia is angry at Devlin for not speaking up for her to his superiors. Why would he not tell them that she is the wrong woman for such a job? We happen to know that he did speak up for her, but he refuses to admit this to Alicia. Devlin does not want her to accept the assignment and will not let these feelings be known. He needs to know if he can trust her and can only know for sure if she refuses the assignment. Alicia wants Devlin to tell her that he believes in her and not to take the assignment because he loves her. Neither character will budge. They are testing one another and both of them fail miserably. As a result, Alicia ends up bedding the agent, and Devlin resents her for this choice (even though she is only doing it because she believes it is what he wants). These games intensify later when Alicia baits Devlin during a rendezvous at the races:

screenplay excerpt - racetrack love test

The scene as it appears in the film is more streamlined, but all of the important beats are there and each beat hits hard. The characters in Notorious have a habit of testing one another’s love and devotion. Even Alexander Sebastian plays emotional games with Alicia as he is every bit as insecure as Devlin. At a dinner, Alicia apologizes to Sebastian for her behavior the last time that they were together. He responds by saying, “Well, then I’ll test your repentance immediately.” Sebastian worries that she has feelings for Devlin, and dances around the subject in order to get information out of her. He even pretends at one point to forget the issue and secretly continues to worry. Even his proposal to Alicia is simply a form of manipulation. When Alicia claims that Devlin means nothing to her, Sebastian’s replies, “I’d like to be convinced. Would you maybe care to convince me, Alicia, that Mr. Devlin means nothing to you?

In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto discusses the obvious motif of wine bottles and alcohol in the film and then elaborates on Alicia’s habit of using alcohol to mask her emotional pain. Devlin is also protecting himself from feeling emotional pain, but he does this by pushing Alicia away in a variety of ways (including verbal jabs about her past). Of course, this behavior is what pushes Alicia directly into the arms of Sebastian. Self-preservation becomes self-destructive in Notorious.

claude rains

“Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman made a nice couple, but in the close shots the difference between them was so marked that if I wanted them both in a frame, I had to stand Claude Rains on a box. On one occasion we wanted to show them both coming from a distance, with the camera panning from him to Bergman. Well, we couldn’t have any boxes out there on the floor, so what I did was to have a plank of wood gradually rising as he walked toward the camera.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

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What makes the film’s incredibly well drawn characters and rich subtext all the more remarkable is that they are rendered without sacrificing any of the suspenseful set pieces that Hitchcock has built his reputation upon. In fact, the brilliant crane shot that begins with an incredible overview of a party being held at the Sebastian mansion and ends with an extreme close-up of the famous UNICA key in Alicia’s hand is one of the most celebrated in Hitchcock’s career.

“That’s again using the visual. That’s a statement which says, ‘In this crowded atmosphere there is a very vital item, the crux of everything.’ So taking that sentence as it is, in this crowded atmosphere, you go to the widest possible expression of that phrase and then you come down to the most vital thing—a tiny little key in the hand. That’s merely the visual expression to say, ‘Everybody is having a good time, but they don’t realize there is a big drama going on here.’ And that big drama epitomizes itself in a little key.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Notorious is full of incredible moments like this one, but the film isn’t about these iconic moments; it is merely elevated by them. Every scene is either rich in subtext, suspense, or both all at once. It has been discussed and dissected endlessly and from a variety of different viewpoints, but there is still so much more to discover with each respective viewing.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Criterion Collection houses their disc in the same sturdy clear case that has become the standard for their releases (we actually prefer this to their digipaks). The cover sleeve includes thematically appropriate cover artwork that has been credited to Greg Ruth. It’s a nice design that captures one of the film’s most memorable moments. Also included in the case is a pamphlet that includes more attractive artwork and an interesting essay by Angelica Jade Bastién entitled, “Notorious: The Same Hunger.” Information about the transfer and technical credits are also included therein.

menu

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

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion includes detailed information about the film’s digital restoration in their included pamphlet:

“A new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director Film scanner at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, California, from three elements: the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain, both held by the Museum of Modern Art, and a 35mm safety fine-grain held by the British Film Institute. Several sections of the original camera negative, the primary source for this restoration, have sustained damage over the years and been replaced by duplicate negatives; for some of these portions, the fine-grains were used. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.” –Liner Notes

Their efforts have resulted in a noticeable upgrade in terms of image quality when compared to the earlier MGM Blu-ray. It has a sharper appearance and the image isn’t slightly squeezed (and was on the MGM disc). The cleaner appearance of this new image certainly stands out as does an improvement in density. It seems like the restoration team took more care with this transfer, and the grain seems to be healthier here as well. Clarity is okay as well but doesn’t seem to be much better here than on the MGM disc. Stability is respectable and the movie looks great in motion. The overall experience feels just a bit more filmic.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Interestingly, the film’s soundtrack was taken from a different source than the image as explained in the included pamphlet:

“The original monaural soundtrack was first restored in 2001 from a 1954 35mm acetate release print and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master. Additional restoration work was performed by the Criterion Collection for this release using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.” –Liner Notes

It’s a nice job and the Linear PCM Audio track sounds much better than one might think it should. Music suffers the most from the film’s dated production techniques, but it certainly represents the film’s original Mono elements admirably. Anomalies that might distract have been minimalized so that hiss, hum, crackle, pops, and other assorted nonsense is never allowed to take viewers out of the movie.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

In addition to two feature-length commentary tracks and an hour-long radio drama, Criterion has included over two hours and thirty-one minutes of video-based material that should thrill fans of the film. In fact, this supplemental package would have earned a perfect score if not for the fact that there are a number of supplements from previous releases of Notorious that haven’t been carried over to this disc.

It almost seems ungrateful to even mention the missing supplements considering the embarrassment of riches that have actually been included here.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Marian Keane (2001)

Anyone who has listened to Marian Keane’s other commentary tracks will have a decent idea what they can expect from this one. What we are given here is a feature-length audiovisual essay that discusses what is happening on the screen in a manner that dissects it in terms of Keane’s personal interpretation. It’s somewhat dry and scholarly, but it will interest those who enjoy theoretical analysis (even if they disagree with her interpretation). However, I imagine that there are plenty of people who will prefer Behlmer’s track.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Rudy Behlmer (1990)

Rudy Behlmer’s track is more information based as we earn a bit about the production and its backstory. There are a lot of anecdotal tidbits, excerpts from production memos and correspondence, various books about the director, biographical information, and certain technical details. There is the occasional theoretical comment, but this one is largely about the film’s production and the various people who were involved with it.

Once Upon a Time: Notorious (2009) – (52:02)

This interesting episode/documentary was originally a part of the French series Once Upon a Time. A variety of archival footage is utilized throughout the duration as are interviews with scholars and other pertinent subjects; including David Thompson, Bill Krohn, Charlotte Chandler, Sidney Gottlieb, Claude Chabrol, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephen Frears, Isabella Rossellini, and others. We even hear from Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman via the aforementioned archival footage. However, it should be made clear that the made clear that the subject of Notorious isn’t discussed in broad general terms. Topics discussed certainly cover the film’s production—including script development, Selznick’s sale of the package to RKO, and production information—but the program’s objective is to examine the sociopolitical environment of the era in which the film was made and how these things influenced the film. It’s an incredibly interesting documentary that is essential viewing for fans of both this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s other work. It is the disc’s best supplement.

Writing with the Camera – (19:54)

Writing with the Camera is the disc’s second-best supplementary program, and focuses on Alfred Hitchcock’s visual style and the various ways that he planned his productions. There are a few contradictory comments as to how the director worked throughout this piece, but this only makes it more interesting and worthwhile. Daniel Raim includes a number of interviews with some of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaborators as well as a number of scholars; including Steven Katz (who literally wrote the books on the visualization process in film directing—“Film Directing, Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen” and “Film Directing, Cinematic Motion: A Workshop for Staging Scenes Film”), Bill Krohn (who wrote Hitchcock at Work), Robert F. Boyle (production designer), Henry Bumstead (production designer), Harold Michelson (storyboard artist), and a number of other experts. The program begins discussing Hitchcock’s use on the visual in Notorious, but there is quite a bit of material on The Birds, and it mentions a few of the director’s other films throughout the duration as well.

Poisoned Romance – (21:01)

Donald Spoto—the man who invented the revisionist biography—discusses the film’s story and production in this conversation recorded specifically for this release. We learn about the film’s “source material,” the story and its narrative structure, Alfred Hitchcock’s frustrating relationship with David O. Selznick, the director’s collaboration with Ben Hecht, and Spoto’s own observations. It’s a nice interview but pales in comparison with the previous two programs.

Glamour and Tension – (23:25)

John Bailey’s interview adds enormously to the value of the disc, but this is mainly due to a very short portion of the program that discusses the challenges of the film’s famous crane shot. His comments on the shot are incredibly technical but his explanation is coupled with illustrations that make it incredibly easy for any layperson to understand. Less interesting are his observations about the rear screen work in Notorious. It’s nice to have a well-respected cinematographer discuss Hitchcock’s visual style, but it is a bit more uneven than some of the disc’s other offerings.

Powerful Patterns – (29:42)

The final sequence is broken down by David Bordwell as is how this sequence is set up throughout the entire movie. It’s both an informative and engaging half hour.

Pathe Reporter Meets… Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock (1948) – (00:48)

The Pathe newsreel footage is actually more relevant to Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn as it cover’s Bergman’s arrival in the United Kingdom to shoot the film. However, it is a nice artifact that should be of interest to fans of both the actress and the director.

Lux Radio Theatre Adaptation of Notorious (1948) – (59:56)

This radio play originally aired on January 26, 1948 and starred Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. It’s certainly interesting but has nothing on the actual film. Notorious is such a visual film experience that the radio version simply falls a bit flat. It is certainly great to have it included here for comparison. The show is played over a still image of Ingrid Bergman.

Theatrical Trailers and Teasers

There are four trailers for the film included on the disc:

A Notorious Woman of Affairs – (02:09)
Gems in Her Hair and Ice in Her Heart – (00:55)
Notorious! Notorious! Notorious! – (00:52)
All She Was Was All She Wanted – (00:16)

Some of the director’s other movies were promoted by much more interesting and creative trailers. The four trailers for Notorious are typical of the hyperbolic trailers of its era. It’s nice to have them included as one likes to see how classic films were marketed.

WHAT WASN’T INCLUDED?

We are missing a number of textual supplements from the previous Criterion DVD release (excerpts from “Song of the Dragon,” production correspondence, letters from the government, script excerpts of deleted material, and an essay). However, these text screens would have been much better had they been included as part a booklet instead of on the disc and it is doubtful that many will prefer those to the video-based material that has been included on this release. However, there are a number of features included on the earlier MGM Blu-ray that could and should have been carried over to Criterion’s disc (or as a part of a 2-disc release).

That release included a commentary track by Rick Jewell that wasn’t discussed a wide variety of topics—including the political landscape of post-war America and what the film meant to RKO at the time of the film’s release. A second commentary by Drew Casper was more theoretical and could even be described as an “audio essay.” There was quite a bit of history on these tracks that would have been a terrific asset to this new disc. Even more sorely missed is a half-hour documentary entitled The Ultimate Romance: The Making of ‘Notorious.’ We admit that some of the material revealed during this program is discussed on the various supplements that have been included here, but it is still unfortunate that it wasn’t included as it does contain a wealth of information that wasn’t included. The same can be said for a thirteen-minute featurette entitled Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster as it focused on the director’s influence on the espionage genre. The omission of the clip from the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony is also sorely missed as it included portions of Alfred Hitchcock’s “thank you” speech and Ingrid Bergman’s presentation of the famous UNICA key that featured in Notorious.

It was rather surprising to discover that this release didn’t include audio excerpts from Hitchcock’s infamous interviews with François Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich as they have included them on a few of their previous Hitchcock releases. It’s very difficult to understand why they weren’t here and they are sorely missed. There was also an isolated music track and a restoration comparison included on the MGM disc, but the comparison isn’t pertinent to this release and the music track isn’t as essential as the various supplements already discussed.

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Final Words:

The next time someone tells you that Alfred Hitchcock films are all style and no substance, simply suggest to that poor misinformed soul that they watch Notorious. It is one of the director’s masterpieces and is essential viewing not only for Hitchcock enthusiasts but for anyone who enjoys great cinema.

Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is a significant improvement over the earlier MGM disc and includes a great supplemental package. However, those who own that earlier release may wish to keep that disc as it contains a number of supplements that haven’t been carried over to this release.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

John Taintor Foote (Song of the Dragon, Saturday Evening Post, November 12 and 19, 1921)

Unknown (Harrison’s Reports, July 27, 1946)

Unknown (Grant, Bergman, Hitchcock, Hecht—Wow, Film Bulletin, August 05, 1946)

Bosley Crowther (Hitchcock Thriller Opens at Radio City, New York Times, August 16, 1946)

Various Authors (What the Newspaper Critics Say About New Films: Notorious, Film Bulletin, August 19, 1946)

Frank S. Nugent (Mr. Hitchcock Discovers Love, New York Times, November 03, 1946)

Unknown (The Times, February 1947)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Oriana Fallaci (Alfred Hitchcock: Mr. Chastity, The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

H. E. F. Donohue (Remembrance of Murders Past: An Interview With Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, December 14, 1969)

Rui Nogueira and Nicoletta Zalaffi (Hitch, Hitch, Hitch, Hurrah, Écran, July-August 1972)

Andy Warhol (Hitchcock, Interview, September 1974)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

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

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, April 01, 1983)

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

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

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

Matthew H. Bernstein (Unrecognizable Origins, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

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

Angelica Jade Bastién (Notorious: The Same Hunger, 2018)

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Offbeat 4K UHD Review: Halloween

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Lionsgate Films

Release Date: September 25, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:30:56

Video: 2160P (HEVC, H.265)

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

Alternate Audio: Mono English Dolby Digital Audio

Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 2.35:1

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

Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

John Carpenter during the production of Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter during the production of Halloween.

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

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

Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis

Mother and Daughter: Janet Leigh with Jamie Lee Curtis.

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

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

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

Sam Loomis and Dr. Sam Loomis

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Picture Quality:

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

Disc 1: 4K UHD

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

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

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

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

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

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Special Features:

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

Disc 1: 4K UHD

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

Feature Length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis

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

TV Version Footage – (SD) – (10:46)

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

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

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

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

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

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

Fast Film Facts (Textual Trivia Track)

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

Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: Under Capricorn

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: June 19, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:57:14

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.93 Mbps

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

Title

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

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

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

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

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

Ingrid Bergman in a Publicity Still for 'Under Capricorn'

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

 WRITING THE SCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PRODUCTION

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

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

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

Joseph Cotten VS. Burt Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RELEASE, RECEPTION, & LEGACY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Reverse Cover Artwork

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

Menu

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

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)

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

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

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Final Words:

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

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

One Sheet

Source Material:

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

Staff Writer (The Times, August 31, 1949)

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

William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Staff Writer (Gloucestershire Echo, September 17, 1949)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

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

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

Michael Haley (The Alfred Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Book Interview: Hitchcock’s Heroines

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Publisher: Insight Editions

Release Date: May 01, 2018

A Conversation with Caroline Young

From his early days as a director in the 1920s to his heyday as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock had a complicated and controversial relationship with his leading ladies. He supervised their hair, their makeup, their wardrobe, and pushed them to create his perfect vision onscreen. These women were often style icons in their own right, and the clothes that they wore imbued the films with contemporary glamor.

Quite a lot has been written over the past few decades regarding Alfred Hitchcock’s use of women in his films—some of it from a scholarly or theoretical standpoint and some of it from a sensationalized tabloid angle that only serves to muddy the waters of responsible scholarship. However, it must be said that this new Insight Editions release of Caroline Young’s Hitchcock’s Heroines doesn’t quite fall into either category. She chronicles six decades of glamorous style while exploring the fashion legacy of these amazing women and their experiences working with Hitchcock. It is informative without being pushy but still manages to have a point of view. What’s more, Young’s text is well researched and beautifully illustrated with studio pictures, film stills, and original drawings of the costume designs. Anyone with a fondness for attractive coffee table books should consider adding this volume to their collection.

Caroline Young is based in Edinburgh Scotland. Her love of film and fashion led to her writing Classic Hollywood Style, Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures, and Tartan and Tweed. Young recently consented to this exclusive interview with Alfred Hitchcock Master, and we hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!

Alfred Hitchcock and Doris Day on Location

This photograph of Alfred Hitchcock and Doris day is one of the many gorgeous photographs contained within the pages of “Hitchcock’s Heroines.” It was taken during the production of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work and what instigated the interest?

CY: I have been a Hitchcock fan since my early teens. I would read Empire magazine, which would often do lists of the best films ever made, and Hitchcock was frequently on the list. So I would rent as many videotapes as I could, and I think the first one I saw was Rear Window. I just loved the visuals and the way it felt like I was in this tenement in a sweltering summer in New York. I did film studies at university so my appreciation was further built, studying the shower scene and applying various film theories to his work.

AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock’s Heroines for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?

CY: Hitchcock’s Heroines is the first book to visually explore the costumes and image of the women in Hitchcock’s films. It has great images and costume sketches, including one from Frenzy that has never been published, but it offers a lot more than this. I wanted to take a balanced approach to Hitchcock’s relationship to his leading ladies, weave in details on the making of the films, and celebrate these amazing actresses and their stories. I also researched and found further detail on the designers behind the different films, such as Adrian for Shadow of a Doubt, and how it was David O Selznick who shaped the character’s image in Rebecca and Spellbound.

AHM: What gave you the initial idea to write a book that centers on the heroines in Hitchcock’s canon and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?

CY: The idea came from my first book, ‘Classic Hollywood Style,’ which explore the story behind the costumes in classic movies. As a follow up I wanted to do another film costume book that focused entirely on Hitchcock, as I had only featured To Catch a Thief, but I had found out so much more information on the costumes in his films that I would’ve liked to have included. This was in 2012, and there was also a lot of interest in the relationship between Tippi and Hitchcock at this time, and his obsession over blondes, particularly on the release of The Girl. But rather than look at him through this misogynistic filter, I was interested in seeing how the women in his films were sympathetic and inspiring, how their image was constructed, and what the actresses thought of Hitchcock and how they got on with them.

The main challenge was the topic, as firstly, Hitchcock was considered controversial, and also that books on film fashion are not always considered popular. I was also conscious of being respectful to Tippi and that a balanced approach didn’t diminish what she was saying.

AHM: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock heroine? If so, who would that be and why is she your favorite?

CY: Difficult to choose, but I adore Nova Pilbeam as she’s really fresh and plucky in Young and Innocent (you wonder how did she learn skills from being in a boxer’s dressing room), but Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite. I like the character arc from self-destructive to showing complete guts in sacrificing herself for duty, the way the ‘female gaze’ is reversed in the party scene, and those Edith Head costumes which use stark black and white to make her stand out. Also, Ingrid Bergman does being drunk really well.

AHM: Now, the reverse of the last question: Which of Hitchcock’s leading ladies is your least favorite and why did she not appeal to you?

CY: Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn, probably because the film doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock work, and it doesn’t leave a memorable impression.

AHM: How did you decide upon which films and actresses to include in the book?

CY: It was a tough call as there was a limit to how much I could include—so I went for the most notable films in terms of visuals around the female character, along with ones I felt illustrated the journey. Nova Pilbeam is not that well known but had been an early protégée of Hitchcock’s, which is why I included Young and Innocent. I would have liked to have explored Vera Miles in The Wrong Man but her image is secondary in that film. However, that could have been interesting in itself.

Madeleine Carroll

Madeleine Carroll: Alfred Hitchcock’s “first glacial blonde prototype.”

AHM: How do you think his British films—and the heroines that feature in these films—differ from those he made as a Hollywood director? Did his heroines change once he moved to America? If so, what are these differences? What do you feel the reasons for this might be?

CY: The British period was when he was finding his own style, developing new techniques and narratives, and in the British period, apart from Anny Ondra, who he enjoyed working with, and Madeleine Carroll who was the first glacial blonde prototype, it wasn’t until Grace Kelly that he found his muse. There are articles in the early 1930s where he talks about what makes the ideal heroine—and he notes that above all they must be appealing to a female audience, so that’s really what he had in mind when casting his British heroines. In later interviews with Hitchcock in the 1950s, when the ideal of the Hitchcock blonde had been established, he pushed a PR line about the Nordic blonde, the ‘snow covered volcano’, and I feel that this was really shaped by Grace Kelly, whose magic he was striving to recreate.

One of the main factors in the differences is that it was in the late 1940s American period where he finally found autonomy in his work as both director and producer, and this allowed him to have complete control, rather than having to answer to other producers. That’s why Notorious is interesting as the first Edith Head collaboration, and the first where he really takes control of the heroine’s image.

Some of the differences are also down to the period they were made. Women in 1930s films often followed the screwball comedy mold, and they were designed to appeal to female audiences who liked plucky, fashionable heroines on screen. Then in the early 1940s, there was a trend for gothic romantic films that delved into the heroine’s anxieties, and this was all shaped by the Second World War. Priscilla Lane in Saboteur was another example of the archetype he would later develop more fully, but I feel he was disappointed a little in her performance. The period of the Hitchcock blonde was predominant in the 1950s, once he had his dream team, and with Edith Head shaping the costumes, and perhaps it could also be argued that the Hitchcock heroine that we think of is very much a 1950s woman.

AHM: As you well know, Hitchcock had originally intended to pull Princess Grace out of retirement so that she could star in MARNIE before later deciding to make the film with Tippi Hedren. How do you think the casting of Grace Kelly would have changed the final film? How do Hedren’s qualities differ from Grace Kelly’s?

CY: I imagine the making of the film would have been a happier experience for all involved if Grace Kelly had played Marnie, and this could, in turn, have had a significant effect on the final work.

Grace Kelly was also a more experienced actress, requiring less guidance than Tippi, and while Tippi has this real vulnerability and emotional quality, I wonder if Grace Kelly would have made the character seem more manipulative and less frightened. Maybe she would have had the ability to convince him of character changes, to cut the rape scene etc, which many people believe he kept in to demonstrate complete control of Tippi.

It’s often said that Hitchcock was never the same after the making of Marnie, it was an upsetting time for Tippi (as she has recounted). If Grace Kelly had done the role, his later films may have been different. He may have been allowed to make Mary Rose… It’s an interesting question as it could potentially have had a big effect on how we judge him now.

AHM: Alfred Hitchcock’s films are still enormously popular all around the globe. Why are his films still relevant while so many others have long been forgotten?

CY: They were highly innovative, combining humor, suspense, and similar themes throughout which have provoked countless theories and examinations around his fetishes and obsessions. He was a great PR man who knew how to publicize himself, evident from some of the early interviews in the 1930s, and so he became a fascinating, intriguing figure in himself. One of the appealing aspects of Hitchcock is also that he captures a particular time and place in his visuals, and Hitchcock, as a British director, captures America through the eyes of a Brit. So he explores Americana in Psycho, with the highways and motel, and uses huge American landmarks for the climax of many of his films (Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and etc). He was also always looking to be innovative [and] to push boundaries, but he also changed the way we view films with Psycho. [It’s] hard to believe people would just wander into the cinema to see a film at any time, but Hitchcock insisted audiences not be permitted once the film started. So all these factors have contributed to the longevity of his films, and that we are still discussing him in detail along with recent controversies which have continued to keep him in the news.

Ingrid Bergman - Still from Notorious

“Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite…”

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. Remember that this is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell

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

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Distributor: Sony Pictures

Release Date: November 08, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 114 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

5.1 French DTS-HD Master Audio

5.1 Portuguese DTS-HD Master Audio

5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital

+ Various Other Languages

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

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

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

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

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

The Wrong Man

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

The supplements are spread throughout two separate discs:

Disc 1 (Blu-ray):

Audio Commentary with Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader

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

Audio Commentary with Paul Schrader

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

Audio Commentary with Robert Kolker

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

Taxi Driver Q&A – (1080p) – (41:56)

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Lonely Man – (1080p) – (21:42)

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

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

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

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

Travis’ New York – (1080p) – (06:16)

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (02:56)

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

Interactive Script to Screen:

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

Disk 2 (DVD):

Making Taxi Driver – (01:10:55)

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

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

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

Storyboard to Film Comparison – (08:21)

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

Animated Photo Galleries – (09:28)

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

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Final Words:

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

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Review by: Devon Powell

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)

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

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Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

 Release Date: August 16, 2016

 Region: Region A

Length: 1:54:16

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Ratio: 1.78:1

Bitrate: 32.33 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available in a DVD edition

Title

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

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

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

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

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

The Hitchcock-Bergman Trilogy

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

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

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

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

“Dear Ruth,

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Menu

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

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Two Deleted Scenes:

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

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

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

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

Extended Scenes:

Shubert Theatre – (14:01)

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

Rossellini Siblings – (05:48)

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

8 mm Home Movies – (07:07)

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

Interview with Stig Björkman – (18:35)

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

Clip from Landskamp (1932) – (00:34)

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (01:35)

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

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Final Words:

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

Swedish One Sheet

The Original Theatrical One Sheet

Review by: Devon Powell

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Homicidal & Mr. Sardonicus

Blu-ray Cover 1

Distributor: Mill Creek Entertainment

 Release Date: July 19, 2016

 Region: Region A

Length:

88 min (Homicidal)

90 min (Mr. Sardonicus)

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 Dolby Digital (448kbps)

Subtitles: None

Ratio:

1.85:1 (Homicidal)

1.78:1 (Mr. Sardonicus)

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

HitchHead

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

The Master of Suspense Vs. The Master of Schlock

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

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

Comparison 0

Comparison 1 Comparison 3

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

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

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

Fright Break Refund Ticket

This is a “Fright Break” Refund Ticket.

Fright Break

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

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

PSYCHO

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

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

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

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

Oskar Homolka in Mr. Sardonicus

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

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

Homicidal - One Sheet.jpg

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Sound Quality:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Special Features:

0 of 5 MacGuffins

There is no supplemental material included.

Mr. Sardonicus - One Sheet

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

NOTE:

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

Blu-ray Cover 2

Blu-ray Review: Classic Hitchcock – The Criterion Collection

Boxed Set

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: December 15, 2015

Region: Region A

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

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

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934):

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

The 39 Steps (1935):

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

The Lady Vanishes (1938):

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

Foreign Correspondent (1940):

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

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

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: 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