Blu-ray Review: Blackmail

Blackmail Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length:

Silent Version – 01:16:07

‘Talkie’ Version – 01:25:47

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1557 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio:

Silent Version – 1.33:1

‘Talkie’ Version – 1.20:1 / 1.33:1

Bitrate:

Silent Version – 32.85 Mbps

‘Talkie’ Version – 30.92 Mbps (1.33:1) / 30.73 Mbp (1.20:1 Version)

Notes: This “special edition” Blu-ray will also include the rare silent version of the film accompanied by a new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. This is the first time either version of this film has appeared on Blu-ray in North America. A DVD edition of this title is also available. In fact, the DVD edition is the film’s North American debut on that format as well. Blackmail has only been available previously on unofficial “public domain” labels, and the transfers used for these releases were horrendous. Of course, none of this takes into account the various VHS and Laserdisc releases of this title since those are dead formats.

Title

Blackmail: Alfred Hitchcock’s First “Talkie”

“Making a talkie film I had only just completed as a ‘silent’ …gave me a tremendous advantage over most other directors. For one thing, I was able to improve on my original ideas; and for another, I was not handicapped by having a stagey subject to handle.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The introduction of sound revolutionized the motion picture industry, but it seemed that the so-called “talkies” were a one-step progression and a two-step retreat (at least in the beginning). It completely changed the way that films were shot, and the new methods made the camera difficult to move. Worse, actors were glued to stationary positions so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Suddenly, sound recording took precedence over a film’s visual aesthetic. It is no wonder that the British film industry faced this new art-form with a certain amount of anxiety. It would mean building expensive soundstages, buying sound equipment, and completely relearning how to efficiently shoot a motion picture. This, of course, doesn’t even take into consideration the challenges faced by exhibitors—and what if talkies were a passing fad?

Luckily, Alfred Hitchcock worked best when he was challenged and often turned technical limitations into creative triumphs. It was impossible for the director to know for certain if British International Pictures would be prepared for a sound production in time for his next project, but most sources agree that he planned the film as both a sound and silent production just to be on the safe side. He decided to embrace the new innovation instead of being threatened by it, and the result was probably his strongest effort since The Lodger. Of course, this is at least partially due to the fact that Blackmail would return him to the thriller genre.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett

CHARLES BENNETT’S ORIGINAL STAGE PLAY

In fact, the film is actually based on a stage play by Charles Bennett—a man who would eventually become an instrumental collaborator on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

“Being a somewhat conceited individual, I like to believe that I subscribed in no small way to Hitch’s reputation. In fact, I know that it was my sense of suspense which moved Hitch to enlist me as his regular writer for seven of his early sound movies beginning with the ‘FIRST SUPER TALKIE,’ Blackmail (1929), for British International Pictures (BIP)…

His film was adapted from my second play… which during its London run caught the fancy of the rotund but highly talented young director. Hitch loved the story—his kind of stuff (and mine). Attempted seduction. Murder. The young innocent murderess being blackmailed. The switch in which the blackmailer himself becomes the suspect of the murder. Suspense.

Anyway, in 1928 Hitchcock had BIP lease the film rights to Blackmail…” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Of course, this is a slightly misleading quote, because—by his own admission—Bennett didn’t actually assist the director in adapting his play into a film. However, his influence is certainly felt in Hitchcock’s film version, and it is worth examining the origins of Blackmail for this reason. Luckily, much of what is known about this subject can be extracted from a short section from Charles Bennett’s autobiography:

“[Al Woods] advertised for authors to send their manuscripts for review, and to my satisfaction he chose my play ‘Blackmail’ from among three hundred submissions. The play was based on the experiences of a girl of whom I was once very fond, an adventure she had after attending the Chelsea Arts Ball. ‘Blackmail’ opened at the Globe Theater on February 28, 1928, [was] produced by Raymond Massey, and starring Tallulah Bankhead, then in her mid-twenties.

I remember that during the run Tallulah Bankhead invited me into her dressing room for a drink—she was stark naked. It wasn’t an invitation to an affair; it was just the way she was. But the play met a stormy reception, as Tallulah’s enthusiasts rushed the gallery stairs and the police were called. There was press notoriety concerning her role, then the play flopped. Critics remarked that if this was the best of several hundred plays, exactly how bad must the others have been? I had to go around apologizing, eventually replying to the criticism in a letter to the Sunday Express. When it was mentioned that I was the author, people thought it was funny. Fortunately, S. Rossiter Shepherd, Film critic for the Sunday People, published the truth about the miserable business, revealing how the original play had been hacked about and spoiled by Al Woods. This cleared me, as I could not really say a word in my own defense without repercussions among producers…

An interesting side note: I was actually knifed during a June 1928 performance of ‘Blackmail’ at the Regent Theatre, King’s Cross. I was playing the artist Peter Hewitt and, during the rape scene, the bread knife slipped from the grasp of the actress Violet Howard and sliced into my left ear. I received treatment at the Royal Free Hospital and then was able to return to the stage, head bandaged, for the curtain call.

When the original version went on tour with multiple touring companies, it proved the success it should have been in London’s West End. Thank God. One reviewer wrote kindly of me, ‘His object is to show the moral murderousness of blackmailers, and he succeeds vividly. He not only shows the tortures of the blackmailed, but lays bare also the state of mind of the blackmailer. The subtlety of alternating drama and psychology demands from the cast an unfaltering accuracy of interpretation.’” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Tallulah Bankhead 1928

Tallulah Bankhead portrayed Alice White in the Globe’s 1928 stage production of Blackmail. She would later portray Connie Porter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

It isn’t known whether Alfred Hitchcock attended one of these performances of Blackmail, but it certainly seems likely considering that he was an avid patron of the theatre, and this particular subject would have appealed to his tastes. However, Bennett’s memoir raises an important question. Which ending was included in the text that Hitchcock and his team used as the source for the eventual film? If you remember, the play was produced with two endings:

“One encounters a problem attempting to study [the play’s] third act. The version that Al Woods insisted on, and which the press panned, is presently unknown. Because Tallulah Bankhead’s fans behaved riotously, one suspects that Alice’s integrity was compromised by Al Wood’s version. But Charles said the play reverted back to its original ending on tour and was then successful.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Did Hitchcock have access to both the Al Woods and the Charles Bennett ending? This question is impossible to answer, and it might not matter very much since the play’s ending was jettisoned in favor of the film’s museum chase.

Even so, such changes should not keep us from examining the published script (which was provided to us by John Bennett as he is currently the holder of all rights to the play). First of all, it is interesting to note that the characters have different names in the original play than their cinematic counterparts, and the reasons for these changes seem somewhat arbitrary. For example, Alice maintains her given name in the film, but her surname has been changed from Jarvis to White. Her detective boyfriend maintained the surname of Webber, but his given name was changed from Harold to Frank. We learn from the play that the blackmailer’s given name is Ian. He is referenced only as “Tracy” in the film. Finally, Mr. Crewe (the doomed artist) was originally named Peter Hewitt. It is also worth noting that Alice has a brother named Albert in the play that never appears in Hitchcock’s film.

The first act of Bennett’s play takes place entirely in the artist’s apartment, and there are two lengthy scenes that play out as one in real time. The first of these scenes has Tracy (the eventual blackmailer) entering the vacant residence uninvited. It is clear that he is intoxicated, and he soon makes himself right at home. The louse even sits down to eat a meal that is laying out after helping himself to a beer that can only aggravate his particular condition. However, these actions are soon interrupted by the artist’s landlady (who is named “Mrs. Cook”), and she quickly tosses him out after their brief exchange makes it clear that he is a former resident who once lived in the building before being evicted. It seems that he was never able to pay his rent. The landlady puts everything back into order, turns out the lights, and escorts the man out of the building (we hear them leave).

This scene is twelve pages in length (the entire Act is less than thirty-five pages), and has absolutely no counterpart in the film. Instead, Hitchcock opens on the arrest of an unknown man, and then follows the detective (Harold/Frank) out on a date with an annoyed Alice. Alice picks a fight with Harold/Frank and ends up leaving with the artist, and this new couple runs into Tracy on their walk to his apartment. However, the next scene in Bennett’s play does have a counterpart in the film.

After the landlady and Tracy are heard leaving, the audience waits in “comparative darkness” for a time before “a distant church clock is heard chiming the hour … twelve strikes.” This sound is followed by the sound of someone entering the building, ascending the stairs, and approaching the door before the artist enters cautiously:

[…He strikes a match for illumination. He speaks in a whisper over his shoulder.]

Peter: It’s all right. Come in.

[Alice Jarvis comes forward out of the darkness of the passage. She passes Peter and advances hesitatingly into the room. The match splutters and goes out and in the darkness Peter closes the door—quietly turning the key and pocketing it afterwards. He speaks to cover the noises of the lock.]

Wait a moment. I’ll switch on the light.

[He strikes another match and going to the divan-bed switches on the red shaded light beside it. He doesn’t switch on the center light, probably because he knows that the more subdued illumination is more suitable for his purpose…]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is painfully obvious from the outset that the artist is on the make and probably not entirely trustworthy here. Whether this is also true of the film version is up for argument, but the play proceeds in a more straightforward and blatant manner than in the film. In any case, Bennett’s stage directions proceed to paint Alice as trying to hide her nervousness, and states that she regrets coming into his apartment.

[…He comes down and takes her caressingly by the shoulders. His voice is low and always seductively suggestive.]

Peter: Darling thing to come up here.

Alice [nervously]: I don’t know why I did.

Peter [with meaning]: I do.

[Alice looks at him, not sure of his trend and he smiles knowingly. She senses danger and lowering her eyes, breaks away towards the window, changing the subject as she does so.]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Alice sees something or someone outside of the window and inquires as to who the man was that addressed him as they were entering the building. We learn that Tracy is always bothering him for money, and she tells him that he is still hanging around outside. This doesn’t surprise the artist in the least as this seems to be his habit. This goes on for about a page, but the Artist soon takes the conversation back into uncomfortable territory.

[…She realizes that she must keep the conversation going if ‘unpleasantness’ is to be avoided and plunges into it.]

Alice: It’s — It’s a nice room.

Peter: Like it?

Alice [Looking around.]: Yes. I — I Like your big window.

Peter: Oh — That’s where I work.

Alice: Yes, I knew that — by the easel.

Peter: Do you paint then?

Alice: No — I wouldn’t know how to begin.

Peter [smiling]: I see I’ll have to teach you…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It would be reasonable for anyone who is familiar with Hitchcock’s film versions of Blackmail to assume that this leads into a scene wherein Alice’s hand is guided into painting a primitive nude, but the subject is immediately dropped here as the artist begins making himself a drink. However, this moment still has importance since it would have planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind for that particular exchange in his film. The line, “I see I’ll have to teach you” undoubtedly suggested that bit of business.

Bennett’s play takes another route. As Peter/Mr. Crewe makes himself a drink, he offers one to Alice only to discover that she is a teetotaler. He continues to apply some light pressure on her to no avail, so he instead offers her a cigarette. She doesn’t smoke either. This refusal to accept anything seems important as it should send a message to the man that his goals aren’t her own. The topic of conversation soon turns to her job, and we learn that she works selling clothes at “Horridge’s.” The man tries at every turn to steer the conversation where he wants it to go until he finally insists that she take off her coat and relax:

Alice: Oh, but I must be going in a minute.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice [quickly]: Yes. You see — it’s some way down the road.

Peter: But I’ll see you home. There’s nobody sitting up for you, is there?

Alice: No

[Too late. She wishes she had said ‘Yes.’]

Peter: Got a key?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: Then what are you worrying about? Here — Give me that coat.

Alice: But I really oughtn’t to —

Peter: Silly. Come on —

[He undoes her coat and in spite of her protests, removes it, revealing a pale blue dance frock beneath. It is short, close fitting, and very pretty in a simple way. Poor Alice, though, feeling positively naked before Peter’s gaze, looks down, abashed. Peter smiles and puts the coat on a chair by the table, then comes back and takes her hand. She speaks in feeble protest.]

Alice:I wish you wouldn’t make me take it off.

Peter: Why?

Alice: Oh, I don’t know. I feel so — so silly without it, somehow.

Peter: You don’t look it. Besides — you hadn’t got it on at the dance.

Alice: It wasn’t the same there.

Peter: How do you mean?

Alice [looking down]: Oh, I don’t know.

Peter [smiling at her]: Sit down.

Alice [nervously]: No. — I don’t want to sit down.

Peter: Of course you do. You must be tired out. [He sinks on the end of the bed and draws her to him.] Come on. — Don’t be shy.

Alice [terribly self-conscious]: I — I can’t help being shy. It’s — It’s the way you look at me, I think.

Peter: I won’t look at you then. [He draws her down onto his knee and she hangs her head, half ashamedly. Peter decided to adopt more subtle methods.] Did you enjoy the dance?

Alice: Yes. Did you?

Peter: Rather. I met you.

Alice [pleased but abashed]: Oh!

Peter: I’ve seen you there before, you know?

Alice: Have you?

Peter: Two or three times.

Alice [shyly]: I’ve seen you too — often.

Peter [a little flattered]: Have you—I say, that’s splendid! By the way, who was the fellow who looked so annoyed when you danced with me?

Alice: Oh. [She giggles a little.] That was Harold.

Peter: Harold?

Alice [looking down]: My young man.

Peter: Oh — So you’ve got a young man, have you?

Alice [glancing up shyly]: Of course.

Peter: Going to marry him?

Alice: One day.

Peter: Lucky beggar. What’s his job?

Alice: Well, he used to be a policeman, but he’s a detective now.

Peter: I say, that sounds imposing. Is he much older than you are?

Alice: Only six years. We’ve been walking out ever since I was fifteen.

Peter [lifting his eyebrows]: And you’re not tired of him yet?

Alice: Tired? Why, of course not. What funny things you say.

Peter [ruefully]: He didn’t seem to like the look of me much.

Alice [giggling again]: No, he didn’t. You should have heard some of the things he was saying about you out in the passage. We had quite a row.

Peter: A row?

Alice: Well — words anyway. That’s why I let you see me home — to teach him a lesson.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This discussion about Harold may have suggested to Hitchcock and his team the idea for Alice’s row with Frank in the restaurant. However, the film suggests that Alice was expecting to see the artist there, and she starts another row after finding him to ensure an opportunity to meet with this handsome stranger. As a result, her motives are less clear in the film version. It might be argued that this ambiguity makes the following episodes more interesting and sets up his decidedly grim ending.

In any case, this conversation continues as Alice and Peter discuss their former encounters at various dance-related events. We learn that Peter never approached her because she had always been with Harold before he goes on to insult his dancing abilities. Belittling her boyfriend is the precursor to asking her on a date, but she tells him that she couldn’t possibly see him in this manner. He continues to press the issue and insists that she see him again and assures her that Harold would never know about it. She tentatively relents, but it is unclear if this is merely her way of ending this topic of conversation or if she actually wants to see him. There are several more pages of Peter’s attempt to wear her down before he asks Alice if Harold’s jealousy was the only reason that she left with him.

Alice [looking down]: I — I’ve forgotten.

Peter: Perhaps I can help you remember. [He lowers his voice.] Was it — Was it because you wanted the same thing as I did?

Alice: I don’t know what you wanted.

Peter [meaningly]: Shall I tell you?

Alice [scenting danger]: No.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: It — It mightn’t be something I’d like.

Peter: Oh — You’d like it all right.

Alice: No. [She feels Peter’s gaze on her head and looks up, realizing desperately that she must keep talking.] I don’t know why I came up really. I — I think I thought it would be funny.

Peter: Funny?

Alice: Yes — You know. To — To go into a man’s room at night. I’ve never been in a man’s rooms [sic] before — at night.

Peter [congratulating himself on the way she is playing into his hands]: Never?

Alice: No.

Peter: So you were looking for new experiences, were you?

Alice: I — I suppose I was.

Peter: And you thought you’d start with me?

Alice [not knowing what to say]: Er — Yes.

Peter [softly]: I’m flattered. [Alice lowers her eyes and Peter smiles.] Are you — Are you glad you decided to start with me?

Alice [breathing quickly]: I — I don’t know.

Peter: Don’t know?

Alice: Not yet —

Peter [pretending to see a meaning which isn’t intended.]: Oh — I shan’t disappoint you. — You darling little devil.

[His face is very close to hers. She is trembling. He lifts her chin with his hand and looks into her eyes, then leans forward to kiss her lips. She realizes his intention though and draws her head back quickly — speaking as she does so —]

Alice: No.

Peter [taken aback]: Why?

Alice: I don’t want to be kissed.

Peter: Don’t want — ? But you didn’t mind half an hour ago at the town hall.

Alice: That was different.

Peter: I don’t see it.

Alice: It was.

Peter: Why?

Alice: You know. It’s — It’s not right now we’re alone.

Peter: Now we’re — But I don’t see — [He stares at her for a moment, then his eyes light up with well-affected amazement.] Why — I believe you’re afraid of me. —

Alice [quickly]: No I’m not.

Peter: I believe you are. Why?

Alice: I’ve told you — I’m not.

Peter: Really and truly?

Alice [nodding]: Yes.

Peter: Then — [He looks at her fixedly for a moment, then speaks very seductively.] Then prove it — by letting me kiss you.

Alice [frightened]: No.

Peter [His lips are very close to hers.]: Prove it —

Alice: I’ve asked you not to —

Peter [very softly]: Silly — [Alice is breathing quickly—her breast heaving. For a moment Peter gazes into her eyes—then he draws her to him and their lips meet. There is a long pause—then Peter speaks again—his voice very low.] Stay with me tonight.

Alice [shrinking]: No —

Peter: You’ll like it as much as I do. — I promise you that.

Alice: You know I can’t.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: Well — We — We’re not married.

Peter: Does that matter?

Alice: You know it does. Besides — I’m not that sort of girl.

Peter: What sort?

Alice: The sort you want me to be.

Peter [As if puzzled by her attitude]: But I don’t understand. I — I’m not trying to insult you, you know. I’m asking you to stay because — Well, because I like you.

Alice: I can’t stay.

Peter: You mean—you don’t want to?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: You don’t like me?

Alice: I never said so.

Peter: Then why — ?

Alice: Oh — You don’t understand. [She shakes her head.] I do like you. — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. It’s — It’s not because it’s you. It would be just the same whoever it was. It’s just — I’m not that sort. You know what I mean, don’t you?

Peter [after a slight pause]: I suppose I do. You mean — You mean you’d like to stay, but you feel you oughtn’t to.

Alice: Not quite that.

Peter: What then?

Alice: Oh — Can’t you see?

Peter: No.

Alice: Well, I’m going to be married one day.

Peter: I don’t see what that’s got to do with it.

Alice: It’s got a lot — [Simply.] You see — I’d like my husband to be the first man I ever — You know what I mean.

Peter [slowly]: Y—es. [Pausing reflectively, then smiles and rises. Going to the fireplace — lighting a cigarette.] Afraid I can’t see your point of view, you know.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The kiss in this portion of the scene may have suggested the threatening kiss in Hitchcock’s film versions, but the scene has a later kiss as well. It seems likely that the endless dialogue would have been cut in any case as it would have been too direct to pass the censors, but Hitchcock was also planning a film intended as a silent endeavor! He had to come up with a more visual means of seduction, and dialogue had to be both simple and brief. Hitchcock was prone to cinematic means of expression, and Bennett’s play was written for the stage. It’s difficult to imagine him taking this approach as he disliked “filmed theatre.”

In the play, the pair argues about whether Alice’s Victorian values are outdated and whether marriage is a worthwhile institution. Obviously, Peter is a man who isn’t going to respect her wishes if they get in the way of his own desires. Peter argues that their escapades wouldn’t be a sin. “What do you think we were sent into the world for? Not to sit and look at each other… The whole thing is a matter of conscience, and if you have a healthy mind, that needn’t bother you much. … Marriage laws were instituted by evil-minded old puritans—too damned prurient to see that if young people loved each other, they’d stick together anyway!” His argument has no effect. In fact, Alice outwits him:

Alice: If they loved each other! [She thinks it over for a minute—then looks at Peter.] Yes. But you don’t love me.

Peter: How do you know that?

Alice: I do know.

Peter: Well — I like you anyway — More than any girl I’ve met for years.

Alice: But you said – ‘If young people loved each other.’

Peter [realizing that he has made a slip.]: Well — You know what I mean.

Alice: Yes. — I think I do. [She speaks very simply.] And I think I agree with you too. If young people loved each other it might be different. Maybe marriage wouldn’t matter so much, then. But you don’t love me. —

Peter [uncomfortably—feeling he has lost ground.]: Well — not exactly — but — [He forces a smile.] Well — you don’t love me for the matter of fact.

Alice: I haven’t offered to stay.

Peter [flinching]: Now you are being cruel…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Peter tries insisting that he does love her out of sheer desperation. When it becomes clear that he isn’t winning her over, he turns away and broods like a child. Soon after this moment, Alice announces that she will be going. Her words seem to set off some sort of trigger in the man’s ego, and “he turns to look at her. The fact that she has repulsed him has only made her more desirable in his eyes.” This leads to a second kissing moment that may have also helped to suggest the scenes in Hitchcock’s film versions.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice: Why not?

Peter: There’s something else I want to say.

Alice: What?

[Peter is staring at her. He is obviously losing control of himself. He takes her hand—drawing nearer.]

Peter: You know what it is —

Alice: I don’t.

Peter: I — I want you.

Alice [frightened again]: No.

Peter: I do. [He is breathing very quickly.] Do you know how beautiful you are? Do you know?

Alice: Don’t. —

Peter: I can’t help it. — I want you — so much.

Alice [moved by his obvious sincerity]: You mustn’t say that. —

Peter: But it’s true. Alice —

[Their faces are close together. Suddenly, Peter takes her in his arms and kisses her passionately. For a moment, she doesn’t resist. Peter’s hand drops caressingly to her knee and he leans over—thrusting her back on the cushions. Suddenly though, she gasps and her hands beat him convulsively. She tears herself away—speaking quickly as she does so.]

Alice: No — Not like that.

Peter: Like what?

Alice: Like that. [She is obviously very frightened and she is rubbing her hand quickly backwards and forwards across her mouth.] I’ve never been kissed like that before. — It’s — It’s wrong.

Peter: It isn’t.

Alice: It is.

Peter: Nonsense. Besides — you liked it.

Alice: I didn’t.

Peter: You did. D’you think I don’t know?

Alice [hysterically]: I didn’t like it. How dare you talk to me like that. —

Peter [nervous at the noise she is making]: Here — For God’s sake keep your voice down. —

Alice: What — ! [She stares at him for a moment—arrested by his tone—then, with great effort, she steadies herself.] Alright. I will. You needn’t hear me anymore.

Peter: What do you mean? [Alice doesn’t reply. She turns away from him and snatching her coat from the chair she wraps it quickly ‘round her shoulders. Her face is hard and set. Peter, realizing that she is going, speaks repentantly.] But look here, Alice. — I didn’t intend to —

[But Alice has crossed quickly to the door and he tails off weakly as he reads the determination in her eyes. He pauses — not quite sure what to do. Alice tries the door — finds it locked — and faces him again. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: This door is locked.

Peter [dully]: Is it?

Alice: You know it is. You locked it.

Peter [morosely]: Well?

Alice: When?

Peter: In the dark—before I switched on the light.

Alice: Why?

Peter: Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t want us to be disturbed by my landlady — that was all.

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: But look here —

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: You’re really going then?

Alice: Yes. Give me the key.

[They are facing each other. Peter stares at her for a moment, then gives in and lowers his eyes. He slowly puts his hand to his pocket and takes out the key. He sinks on to the end of the bed couch — looks at her again — then throws the key to the ground at his feet. He speaks sullenly. ]

Peter: Oh, blast you then — take it.

[Alice looks at him disdainfully for a moment, comes down to pick up the key. Peter watches her resentfully. He is breathing in quick gasps — evidently not master of himself yet again. He has intended to let her go but her defiant carriage and steady eyes are too much for him. His lips curl into a twisted smile — desire and bitterness warring — then, suddenly, as she stoops to pick up the key, he covers it with his foot. His voice is quiet but hoarse with passion.]

No. Why should I let you go?

Alice [taken aback]: What?

Peter [his eyes fixed on her]: You knew what you were coming to when you came in here tonight. —

Alice [frightened]: What do you mean? Give me that key.

Peter: No.

Alice: Give me that key — !

[She makes a dart for it but peter’s hand shoots out and seizes her wrist. She writhes as he twists it and her coat slips from her shoulders and falls to the ground.]

Peter: You knew —

Alice [in agony]: Let me go —

Peter: A girl knows what to expect when she comes into a man’s room at night.

Alice: Let me go.

Peter: I’m damned if I do.

Alice: Let me go, I say —

Peter: No. You’ve been playing me up. — It’s my turn now.

Alice: Oh — !

[Thoroughly frightened she is struggling desperately by this time. Suddenly she stoops forward and bites his hand. He lets go her wrists with an exclamation of disgust.]

Peter: God! You cat!

[Alice, free for a moment, darts away across the room — but Peter is just behind her. He seizes her frock at the neck but it tears right down revealing pretty ‘Cami-knickers’ beneath. Having lost her momentarily, he sways drunkenly almost falling — evidently the result of intense emotional excitement — and Alice, seizing her opportunity reaches the table and turns on him with her back to it. But Peter is after her again.]

Alice: Keep away from me —

Peter: What —

Alice: Keep away. I’ll shout for help.

Peter [closing with her]: No you won’t — you damned little cheat.

Alice [fighting desperately]: You—You—Help!!

Peter [thrusting his hand over her mouth]: Shut up — Blast you —

[Alice tries to scream but can’t. For a moment they are struggling fiercely—then Peter has her in his arms and is kissing her wildly, Alice is gasping for breath, but Peter is forcing her farther and farther back on to the table. He is obviously carried away with passion and doesn’t know what he is doing. SUDDENLY Alice’s right hand is disengaged, and somehow THE BREAD KNIFE IS IN IT! Peter tries to seize her hand, but it is too late. The knife whips through the air and a moment later is reeling back with an ugly wound in the throat. Alice drops the knife and staggers away from the table. Peter is writhing horribly — one hand to his neck — another to his heart. He falls but rises again. Alice watches him — horror stricken. He falls across the bed and for a moment is writhing in his death agony — then he lies quite still. Alice stares at the form on the bed for a while—her eyes wide with terror. Presently she speaks—intense fear in her voice.]

Alice: What’s the matter? What’s the matter with you? You’re trying to frighten me — aren’t you? [She draws a little nearer—speaking very appealingly.] Aren’t you? [She draws nearer still and her eyes dilate. She leans over, and putting out her hand, touches the dead man’s face, but snatches it back again with a stifled scream as she comes in contact with blood. She shrinks away from the bed — agony in her voice.] Oh—I didn’t mean to do it. You shouldn’t have — You shouldn’t have tried to —

[Her voice is shaking with fright and emotion and she tails off weakly. For a while she stands gazing at the silent form — obviously in a quandary as to what to do next, Presently she goes to the window and looks out furtively—then comes back to the bed again. She stands there for a moment — still undecided — then, suddenly, she makes up her mind. She picks her coat up quickly and draws it about her — gets the key — crosses to the reading lamp and switches it off — goes to the door and opens it stealthily — looks ‘round once more — then passes out into the blackness of the passage, closing the door behind her. For a while the creaking of the stairs is heard as she descends, and presently the closing of the front door is discernible. The room is left in darkness again as in the opening of the act — the hazy moonlight striking across the bed, just revealing the silent for that lies there. The distant church clock is chiming the hour again — and anon, the heavy stroke of one is heard.

There is a pause. Then the sound of gravel is heard being thrown from below and rattling on the window pane is heard — Tracy — trying to attract the attention of Peter Hewitt. After another pause, the rattle of the gravel on the pane is heard again.]

THE CURTAIN FALLS.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

There are obviously momentary similarities between the play and the Hitchcock versions, but there are also radical differences that go beyond the reduced dialogue, the off-screen nature of the murder, and the basic staging. The introduction of the clown painting accounts for a major addition to Bennett’s text, and it becomes a motif that carries through to the very final film. The aftermath of the murder is radically different in Hitchcock’s film. The film’s Alice is absolutely stunned and noticeably less at herself than the Alice of the play.

However, Bennett’s second act contains a curious amalgam of obvious similarities and major differences to Hitchcock’s adaptation. Some of these differences may at first seem rather arbitrary, but closer analysis will clearly show that these minor alterations change the manner in which scenes that are taken (almost) directly from the play are experienced by an audience.

First of all, Hitchcock alters the characterization of Alice’s parents and omits the character of Albert (Alice’s brother). However, it might be argued that the character of her brother has been replaced with the gossiping customer as Albert is responsible for gossiping about the murder in the play’s second act. Bennett describes Alice’s father as “fat, fifty, ponderous, dogmatic, and extremely like a sea lion. He has a tremendous respect for the profundity of his own wisdom and a child-like, if entirely erroneous, belief that he is… a wit.” Meanwhile, her mother is characterized as “an unsympathetic woman of forty-five or so,” and claims that “she might have been good hearted and human enough” if she had married anyone else. Instead, “she has developed a hard and nagging disposition. She takes great delight in scandal (other people’s), is sycophantish [sic] towards her betters and has a very strong ‘respectability complex.’” Hitchcock’s film reduces the importance of these characters but also makes them more sympathetic.

This portion of Bennett’s play also calls into question the validity of scholarly criticism about Joan Barry’s accent as inappropriate for “a cockney shop girl.” A study of the play’s text reveals that while Mr. Jarvis/Mr. White has a thick cockney accent, both Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White and Alice speak in a more proper manner (although this is less true of the mother). What’s more, there is a casual mention of the sacrifices made for Alice’s education, so Alice probably received speech training as part of her school’s curriculum. One could certainly argue a case for either point of view.

More interesting than this triviality is the fact that Alfred Hitchcock has Alice sneaking into bed and evading scrutiny about her late arrival while the play opens on her parents as they worry about her whereabouts. We learn that it is four o’clock in the afternoon and that she has been missing for sixteen hours. It is instantly clear that her mother is more concerned about the possibility of a potential scandal than she is about Alice’s safety. She is painted as an extremely unpleasant person. Of course, the same cannot be said about Sara Allgood’s portrayal in the film.

Albert (Alice’s brother) soon returns from his search for Alice and has no news to report about his sister’s whereabouts, but he has learned about the murder of a “young artist bloke” who was discovered “dead—up the road near the King’s Picture ‘ouse… Wound in the neck an’ a blood-stained knife on the floor beside ‘im.” Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White takes an intense momentary interest before remembering her own troubles. The scene, which is part of one long act that plays out in real time, takes place in the parlor of the family’s general shop.

A second scene runs into this one when Alice finally shows up.

[Mrs. Jarvis stares at her. Her relief has been intense, and for a moment she has been prepared to welcome her daughter with all the love that lies in her. But her words and intentions freeze into nonexistence as she appreciates Alice’s appearance. A germ of suspicion is immediately bred, rapidly grows and as rapidly finds confirmation. She is at once convinced that ‘the worst’ has happened and her voice and demeanor reveal the fact. She speaks slowly.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Oh! So you’ve come home, have you? Well — Where have you been?

[Alice is looking at her mother. She is obviously at the end of her tether. Her movements are quick and nervous. And there is a haunted look in her eyes. She looks at her father and then at her brother. Finding no sympathy in either of them, her eyes come back to the questioner. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: Walking?

Alice: Just — walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: And last night?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: What? [Alice can’t bear it any longer and lowers her eyes. Mrs. Jarvis stares at her for a moment — then follows up her attack.] What do you mean — walking?

Alice [suddenly — desperately]: Leave me alone. Let me be. I’m not going to say anything.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Obviously, there is nothing at all like this in Hitchcock’s adaptation. However, it seems reasonable to suspect—as Charles Barr also noted in his essay, “Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn”—that this scene suggested Alice’s incredible post-murder journey through the city in Hitchcock’s film. The cinematic sequence is one of the film’s most memorable stretches and was purely Hitchcock’s creation, but it seems likely that Bennett’s play once again planted the seed for the idea in the director’s mind.

The play continues down this same path as Mrs. Jarvis and (to a lesser extent) the other members of Alice’s family try to force her to tell them where she has been. She continues to refuse until finally snapping at them: “You all seem pretty sure of what really happened last night. All right, then — you can think what you like — but I’ll tell you one thing, though. Whatever did happen is a thousand times worse than anything you can imagine — any of you!” Obviously, this only exacerbates her situation.

As this article has already mentioned, Alice’s absence goes unnoticed by her family in the Hitchcock films. This allows for the brilliant scene with the gossiping customer—the infamous “knife” sequence. It’s quite a scene and may actually do an even better job at getting Alice’s anxiety across to the viewer. It somehow makes it worse that her family doesn’t suspect anything as she is entirely alone in her suffering here.

In any case, this interrogation continues until the entrance of Harold/Frank.

[The shop door-bell rings and a man enters the shop. Mrs. Jarvis glances through the door.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Here’s Harold. [Alice starts.] Yes—and you’d better think what you’re going to say to him. You won’t get any help from us.

Alice [nervously]: I can’t see him.

Mrs. Jarvis: We’ll see about that — Ah! [Harold Webber has entered the room. For a moment during the preceding dialogue he has lingered in the shop waiting for an invitation to come in — but suddenly seeing Alice, he dispenses with ceremony… He stands just inside the room — his eyes on Alice. Mrs. Jarvis addresses him at once.] Yes — you may well come here, Harold. There she is—home after sixteen hours. Maybe she’ll tell you more than she told us. Ask her where she was last night.

Harold [looking fixedly at Alice and speaking quietly.]: Yes — I want to ask her that. [Alice lowers her eyes. Harold pauses a moment, then turns to Mrs. Jarvis.] But I’d like to ask you alone — if you don’t mind.

Mrs. Jarvis [disappointed]: But I don’t see —

Harold [looking at Alice again]: If you don’t mind, Mrs. Jarvis.

Mrs. Jarvis [annoyed]: Oh — very well, then. — We’ll go to the kitchen.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This particular portion of the play does bring to mind a moment in the film when Alice asks Mr. and Mrs. White to leave their parlor/kitchen in the film, but this doesn’t happen until after Tracy arrives as a threat to the couple. The Hitchcock version of Harold/Frank’s interrogation of Alice occurs much more simply and with very little dialogue in a phone booth located in the public area of the store. What’s more, the audience knows from one of the film’s earlier scenes that Frank has discovered Alice’s glove and is fully aware that he suspects that Alice is guilty of the artist’s murder. In the play, this actually comes as a surprise after an interrogation of Alice that lasts over nine pages in length. After asking where she has been, he tells her that he is currently investigating a man’s murder and reads her an excerpt from the newspaper that informs her and the audience that the police are currently working on a clue. He then asks her who she left the dance with the previous night, and it becomes clear that he saw her leave with the murdered man.

Harold: …Was it the fellow you were dancing with?

Alice [after a silent pause]: No.

Harold: It wasn’t?

Alice [turning away to avoid his eyes]: No.

Harold [doubtfully]: Um! Did he tell you his name?

Alice [evasively]: I can’t remember.

Harold [curiously]: Can’t you? I wonder if you’d remember if you heard it again. —

Alice [facing him—frightened]: Why? — Do you know it?

Harold [nodding]: I know it all right. Shall I tell you?

Alice [quickly]: No.

Harold: Why not?

Alice [turning away again]: I’m — I’m not interested.

Harold: No — ? [Alice looks into the fire and doesn’t reply. Harold changes his tone once more.] By the way, Alice — you lost your gloves last night. Did you know?

Alice: No

Harold: I found them. [He takes a pair of long, light, kid gloves from his pocket.] These are yours, aren’t they? [Alice takes the gloves from him and stares at them—but doesn’t reply.] Aren’t those the ones I gave you at Christmas?

Alice: I — I don’t know. Where did you find them?

Harold: Are they yours?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: No.

Harold: They’re not.

Alice: No

Harold [doubtfully]: Sure? — Where are yours then — ?

Alice [quickly]: Oh—somewhere—in my pocket, I expect.

Harold: Um! [He thinks it over a moment.] Oh, all right, give me those back — I’ll need them.

Alice: Why?

Harold [as casually as possible]: Well — as a matter of fact they’re a clue.

Alice [startled]: A clue?

Harold: Yes. I ought to have handed them over to my chief when I found them. I took a pretty big risk when I put them in my pocket instead.

Alice [staring at him]: Harold —

Harold [looking straight into her eyes]: To tell you the truth I found them in the room where Peter Hewitt died — [Slowly] Peter Hewitt — the artist you were dancing with at the town hall last night.

Alice: But — [She stops.]

Harold: What?

Alice [quickly]: I—I don’t know what you’re getting at.

Harold: I think you do.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The play continues down this path with Alice refusing to admit her guilt and Harold becoming more forceful in his approach. It is only when she comes to understand that Harold has no intention of handing her over to the police that she breaks down and admits her guilt. Harold then promises her that he will stick by her and no one will ever know. In contrast, Hitchcock sets up the uniqueness of Alice’s gloves in the restaurant scene very early in his adaptation as we learn “there’s a hole in two fingers.” This allows him to show the audience the discovery of the glove and then allow the couple to interact with very little dialogue and very little exposition. The result is as follows:

Frank: What happened last night?

[Alice looks away from him not wanting to answer.]

Why won’t you tell me?

[After a beat, he realizes that she isn’t going to tell him and takes the glove from his pocket.]

Look. You know where I found that?

[Surprise and fear registers on Alice’s face as she nods that she does.]

It’s the only piece of evidence that you were there.

[She reaches for it, but he puts it back into his pocket.]

I’m keeping it back at present.

[She looks at him, at a loss for words.]

For God’s sake, say something!

[There is a knock at the phone booth’s door. It is Tracy. He has been watching them throughout the scene. He opens the door.]

Tracy: If you’re not using the phone, uh, may I? I — I want to get on to Scotland Yard.”

Interestingly, Tracy also interrupts the couple in Bennett’s play. After Harold/Frank promises that they are “the only two in the world who will ever know” that she killed the artist, they hear someone entering the store. We soon learn that their customer is Tracy, and he asks for Alice. Before she can refuse him, the man enters the parlor without asking and then proceeds to blackmail the couple for five pages. It isn’t unlike what happens in the film, but he milks money from them on the spot and even pressures Alice to take money from the store’s till to buy his silence. The biggest change here is that this shake down is allowed to play out, and the blackmailer leaves the premises after promising to be back regularly. In the film, the tables are turned on Tracy when Frank receives a phone call from Scotland Yard.

This never happens in Bennett’s play. Instead, Alice’s parents return to the parlor shortly after Tracy leaves their company. Mrs. Jarvis expects to learn from Harold what her daughter has been up to the previous night, but he refuses to tell her as she has told him in confidence. As a result, Mrs. Jarvis turns against him and suspects that “it’s a put-up job between them,” and accuses her of being with him the previous night. This continues until they again hear someone enter the shop. Albert has returned with more gossip about the murder.

[He is obviously very excited. Mrs. Jarvis transfers her attention to him at once.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Well?

Albert [at random]: Well — They’ve fahned out ‘oo did it!

Mrs. Jarvis: What?

Albert: Why, the murder, o’ course.

Mrs. Jarvis [exasperated]: What murder?

Albert [surprised at her ignorance]: O’ the young artist bloke up the road. ‘Is landlady — a Mrs. Cook, ‘as come forward an’ given the chap away.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Of course, the chap in question is Tracy. Alice feels bad that the wrong man has been accused, but Harold believes that he deserves whatever he gets and calls it a “heaven-sent chance.” This is obviously what suggested the phone call from Scotland Yard that turned the tables on the blackmailer in Hitchcock’s film. The film version simply opts for economy.

The published version of the play’s third act has no counterpart in Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation as it finds an anxiety ridden Alice wide awake in the middle of the night as she tries to phone Harold/Frank. She is caught by Albert (who never even appears in the film version), and he makes it clear that he suspects that she is somehow mixed up with the Peter Hewitt murder. When Alice finally admits that she is the one who killed him, Albert leaves to discuss the matter with Harold. Meanwhile, Alice calls Harold to tell him that her brother is on his way to see him and admits that she is worrying about the welfare of Tracy. After this brief phone conversation, she hears someone at the shop door. This, of course, turns out to be an extremely exhausted Tracy. We learn that he has been chased by the police for hours and has come to seek shelter as it is storming. He tries to convince Alice to turn herself in to the police as they discuss their current situation. Alice assures Tracy that she has no intention of letting him take the fall for her, but she prefers to find another way around it so as not to get Harold into any trouble.

Soon, they see a policeman with a light peering in the store windows and hide. It seems that he is merely checking the premises as part of his nightly duty and hasn’t seen them. After more discussion, Harold arrives to talk to Alice. He tells her that Tracy was spotted entering the store and that other policemen are on their way to arrest him. There is an argument between the couple—with interjections, insults, and threats made by Tracy—about what she should do when the police arrive. She tells him that it would be wrong to let someone be punished for her crime and asks him to call the station to turn her in so that suspicion will be taken off of him. When he refuses, things become heated between Harold and Tracy. After absorbing a number of Tracy’s insults, Harold ends up pulling a gun on the man.

Harold:[He is staring at Tracy. There is a queer note in his voice.] Still — there’s another way, you know.

Tracy: What?

[Harold pauses a moment before answering. His hand is in his right pocket — his voice is steady.]

Harold: Besides us — Alice and me — you are the only person in the world who knows how Peter Hewitt died. I’m a policeman and there’s a warrant out for your arrest. If you tried to escape it’s my job to take you — and if you put up a fight — they’re not going to hang me for going a bit further.

Tracy: What do you mean?

Harold [suddenly whipping a light revolver from his pocket and covering Tracy]: THIS — !

Alice [terrified]: Harold — !

Harold [an insane glint in his eyes]: Look at that! Look at it, you swine. Murder to cover murder. It’s been done before, you know.

Tracy [cowering back]: You’re mad.

Harold: Perhaps

Alice [desperately]: Harold!!

Harold [throwing her back with his left arm.]: Keep out o’ this — [He lifts the revolver to shoot—but Alice has darted behind him and has seized his hand. He struggles with her.] Let go. — Let go. —

Alice: You can’t —

Harold [wildly]: Can’t I — ?

[He throws her off momentarily — AND SHOOTS! But Alice has knocked up the muzzle of the revolver and the bullet hits a picture, high above Tracy’s head. Alice seizes Harold by the wrist — desperate appeal in her voice.]

Alice: Harold!!

[Harold is staring at her — his eyes wild. Suddenly there is a loud knock at the shop door. Harold looks up and the revolver slips from his fingers and falls to the floor. Alice dives for it — then runs towards the left hand door evidently afraid that Harold might try to get it again. But Harold is standing as if in a dream — his muscles relaxed — his face expressionless. He speaks quietly.]

Harold: The police — !”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is, in fact, the Sargent of police. He has arrived to arrest Tracy. Alice makes an effort of confession but is hushed by Harold. She tries again but is interrupted by Albert. He has returned from the police station, and he demands that Harold call the station before anything else happens. After a brief exchange of confusion and argument, he does as Albert asks and phones the station. It seems by Harold’s reaction that he is receiving surprising news. Once this conversation is finished and the call is ended, we learn what he has heard on the other end of the line.

[Harold looks at them — one after another. His eyes finally rest on Alice. At last he speaks — slowly — as if in a dream.]

Harold: Peter Hewitt! His doctor went to Scotland Yard tonight. He told them a thing or two and it made them think — [To Tracy] And then — because they were after you, a police surgeon was sent down to the mortuary at once. He found out who did it — He found out —

Alice [staring]: Harold —

Harold [almost laughing—on the verge of a breakdown.]: Did you think he was murdered? My God! What a lot of fools we’ve been. Why, the wound wasn’t deep enough to have killed. The jugular vein wasn’t touched. [His lips move convulsively for a moment — then.] He died — of HEART FAILURE!

Tracy [gasping]: What?

Harold [going on quickly as Alice starts violently.]: Heart failure — brought on by over excitement. His heart’s been weak for months so the doctor says and they worked it out — Oh, Lord — they’re so clever — [He sways a moment and steadies himself against a chair before going on.] He — He was about to have supper when something — something happened to upset him. He had a seizure — the bread knife was in his hand — he fell — ON THE KNIFE! He managed to crawl to the bed where he died a few minutes later of — of — heart failure — Heart —

[He staggers and nearly falls—his hand to his eyes. The Sergeant darts forward and catches him by the arm.]

Sergeant: Steady!—What’s up?

Harold [sinking into a chair]: Nothing. Dizzy. — It’s been a long day—[His eyes come to Tracy. He speaks thickly.] There’ll be no charge against him. Take him along. They’ll let him go again when he gets there.

Sergeant [looking at Tracy regretfully]: Um! Are you ready, sir? [Tracy doesn’t reply. He too seems knocked out by the sudden turn of events. He looks at Harold then at Alice—then slowly turns and goes up into the shop. The Constable follows him. The Sergeant turns up too — speaking to Harold as he goes.] You’ll follow us — ?

Harold [without looking at him.]: At once.

Sergeant [to Alice]: Goodnight, Miss.

[Alice doesn’t reply. She is gazing fixedly at Harold. The Sergeant smiles to himself — turns — and goes into the shop, closing the glass door after him. Albert goes with him. A moment later the outer door slams — signifying that they have gone. Harold is sitting very still — staring straight in front of him — at nothing. Suddenly the pendulum clock gives a whirring noise and strikes ONE. Alice starts and speaks—fear in her voice.]

Alice: Oh. — Twenty-four hours since — since — [Her voice trails off.]

Harold [looking at her at last—speaking steadily]: Peter Hewitt died of heart failure.

[Alice looks at him—her eyes light up—she comes toward him.]

Alice: Harold — Was that true?

Harold [rising to meet her — nodding his head.]: True. —

Alice [relief too intense for words]: Oh. —

[Harold takes her in his arms — affectionately–protectively. She nestles up to him—looking up into his eyes. He speaks very quietly.]

Harold: You poor kid.

THE CURTAIN FALLS”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The carryover from this portion of the original play was the idea for the chase sequence in the original film version. Tracy elaborates on his experiences after seeking shelter with Alice, and it seems likely that this planted the seed for Hitchcock’s third act (even if the action in the film adaptation is completely different than what was described by Tracy in Bennett’s play.

An unpublished version of the play entitled “24 Hours” actually had another ending. This early draft seems to have taken a much different path to its eventual happy ending. Apparently, Alice eventually admits to the crime so as to let Tracy off the hook in this version.

“A sensational trial, occurring during the curtained interval between the second and third acts, acquits Alice of murder because she acted in self-defense. Returning home from jail, she is introduced by her mother, Mrs. Jarvis, to Miss Potter, a nasty Victorian spinster. Miss Potter has been tasked to force the terrified girl into a workhouse, where, locked away, she will atone her family’s disgrace by ironing.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

It is doubtful that Hitchcock ever saw this early draft of the play, but it might be worth including here as a comparison to the version that was published:

Miss Potter: You must remember that this is going to take a lot of living down. Your parents have their livelihood to consider. If you were here… Well… It isn’t a very pleasant reflection, is it? I mean… The disgrace.

Alice: But I don’t see. What disgrace? I’ve been acquitted.

Miss Potter: Acquittal isn’t everything.

Alice [losing control of herself]: But they said… Oh… you ought to have been there to hear them. It was proved I wasn’t to blame.

Miss Potter [soothing her … irritatingly]: Now try to keep calm. It’s alright. It won’t be for long. You can come back here in a year or so’s time.

Alice: A year or so! And where do you expect me to go in the meanwhile?

Miss Potter: That has been arranged. You will live for the next few months at the Southwark branch of the Fallen Women’s Aid Society… [Alice gives a gasp but Miss Potter continues] You will find your surroundings friendly and congenial and you will have time to reflect and to think about making a new start in life. You will…

Alice [suddenly … unable to bear it any longer]: Be quiet! You … dreadful … woman!

Miss Potter [staggered … and shocked to the depths of her soul]: What … !!

Alice [tensely]: So you want to put me in prison after all. Yes … that’s what it means … Aid Society! Why … [desperately] I’d rather go on the streets!

Mrs. Jarvis: Alice!

Alice [to her mother]: You. Do you consent to this?

Mrs. Jarvis: It’s best, Alice.

Alice: Best! [She turns away on the verge of hysterical laughter—but faces them again.] And this is my home. You don’t want me here. I killed a man to save myself from … from … [Her voice breaks but she carries on.] And yet you’d send me to a home, among women of that sort … as if … as if … [She is crying again.]

–Charles Bennett (24 Hours, as reprinted in “Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense,” 2014)

Of course, Alice refuses to go to the workhouse and ends up selling her story to the press for a large sum of money before announcing that she will marry the detective. Even if this ending had been presented to the director, it seems highly unlikely that he would have used it in his film.

This is a photograph of Alfred Hitchcock that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

THE ADAPTATION

If Blackmail can be viewed as the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s association with Charles Bennett, it should also be seen as the end of the director’s collaboration with Eliot Stannard. Stannard had collaborated in some capacity on the scripts for each of his silent films, but Blackmail was the dawn of a new era. On November 07, 1928, The Times reported that Garnet Weston was working on the scenario, but in the end Weston only contributed a rather generalized treatment for the film—a treatment that didn’t include the film’s third act chase through the British Museum.

Of course, Alma Reville was always a primary collaborator (especially during this phase in the director’s career), but the duo usually wanted a third voice.

“…Hitchcock didn’t have to look far. With his instinct for discovering young talent, he remembered Michael Powell… Hitchcock liked him, and so did Mrs. Hitchcock…

…During the filming of The Manxman Hitchcock had handed Powell a copy of the Charles Bennett play, telling him that Blackmail was well-crafted until the weak third act. Hitchcock liked fireworks for his third acts, the dramatic set pieces he called ‘crescendos,’ which topped everything that went before.

‘See what you think of the play,’ Hitchcock told Powell, ‘and let me know how you think it might be improved for a film.’ It was the kind of remark Hitchcock often meant as a little test, but Powell passed swimmingly. He returned to tell Hitchcock he agreed with him—Blackmail would make a ‘swell movie.’ When Hitchcock then asked about the rotten’ third act, Powell said, ‘To hell with the third act. We’ll make it a chase.’” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Of course, many people in the director’s orbit at the time have laid claim to coming up with the initial idea for Blackmail’s chase sequence (including John Maxwell), but it seems fairly safe to assume that the idea was born out of script sessions with Hitchcock, Reville, and Powell. It would probably be very difficult for even these three participants to actually nail down who came up with an idea that was born out of group conversation, but Powell would have certainly participated in the idea. In any case, his account of the script meetings that produced the chase is worth noting:

“At one script session, according to Powell, the director ‘broached an idea that I had been nurturing for a while.’ Blackmail ought to conclude, Powell suggested, with an elaborate chase that takes place in ‘some bizarre location that is entertaining in itself.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Hitchcock, raising his eyebrows. ‘What do you think Michael means, Alma?’ Right on cue, Mrs. Hitchcock gave Powell an encouraging nod. Powell had been pondering his boyhood visits to the British Museum Reading Room; that hallowed edifice with its glass dome. ‘Let’s have him [the blackmailer, pursued by police] slip into the British Museum at night,’ Powell offered, ‘and get chased through rooms full of Egyptian mummies and Elgin Marbles, and climb higher to escape, and be cornered and then fall through the glass dome of the Reading Room and break his neck.’ The Hitchcocks beamed.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

With the film’s third act in place, the director could begin planning for the film’s unusual production.

Sound Proofing 2

PRODUCTION: SILENT AND SOUND VERSIONS

We know that the production began as a silent film, but the production history of Blackmail is somewhat convoluted. In some ways, Hitchcock’s own recollections seem to raise nearly as many questions as they answer.

“I was bitterly disappointed when I was told that it was to be a silent picture. I was convinced that talkies were no mere flash in the pan and that the day of silent films had passed. I felt certain in my own mind that, when the picture was finished, I should be asked to add dialogue to it, or to remake it entirely as a full-length talkie. Therefore, when producing the film in silent form, I was imagining all the time that it was a talkie. I was using talkie technique, but without sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

As luck (or fate) would have it, the director was proven correct.

“…They told me that the last reel was going to be done in sound. I didn’t let them know up front, but I knew there was so much of the visual in it that here and there I could go back and drop certain sounds into scenes that were completed. Having seen it once since then, I think it shows a little bit that there’s no flow of dialogue where it should flow. The dialogue almost comes in like titles in the early part of the picture.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This, of course, implies that Hitchcock was able to lay in sound over most of the scenes that had already been shot for the silent version. However, Hitchcock told François Truffaut that the producers gave him “carte blanche to shoot some scenes over.” What’s more, an article written by Hitchcock in 1936 suggests that quite a few scenes were completely reshot (and a comparison of the two films confirms this).

“I was allowed to remake practically the whole of the picture in talkie form. There were certain difficulties. I had the same cast, except for Phyllis Konstam, who had gone off to fulfill a stage engagement. Phyllis Monkman replaced her.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The replacement of Phyllis Konstam was a relatively inconsequential change in casting as she was only in a few scenes. However, it would have been impractical to recast the film’s protagonist, and this impracticality created quite a bit of chaos when it came time to reshoot scenes for the sound version.

“The star was Anny Ondra, the [Czech] actress, who, naturally, hardly spoke any English. We couldn’t dub in the voices then as we do today. So, I got around the difficulty by calling on an English actress, Joan Barry, who did the dialogue standing outside the frame, with her own microphone, while Miss Ondra pantomimed the words.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

It is this particular production problem that bothers many scholars. It’s impossible to fathom that the film would have been as groundbreaking sound-wise without quite a bit of serious consideration and planning. However, it seems strange that Hitchcock would have cast Anny Ondra as Alice White if he truly anticipated from the outset that he would be shooting sound. This seems somewhat paradoxical! On one hand, his sound experiments couldn’t have been achieved seamlessly without serious preplanning. On the other hand, if he was planning for a possible sound production, why was Ondra cast in the first place?

It seems reasonable to assume (and there is evidence to support the theory) that a sound production was initially nixed by the studio after the director’s contingent planning for both possibilities but before casting the film. It is known that John Maxwell (the film’s producer) changed his mind and agreed to add a final sound scene after production was well under way, and that he signed off on a few more sound additions at the behest of Hitchcock at an even later date. Hitchcock and Ondra were good friends. He wasn’t about to dismiss her in the middle of a production.

Anny Ondra

Anny Ondra

Even actors with strong voices and appropriate accents had a rough go of it. The coming of sound made it necessary for actors to relearn their craft. Silent actors had to adapt their technique so as to give more understated performances. Studios also began hiring stage actors, but acting for the screen required a different technique than what was required for the stage. Alfred Hitchcock remembered how veteran stage actress, Sara Allgood, had trouble adjusting her technique during the production of Blackmail:

“I remember a terrible moment in connection with her. As it was her first film we got to discussing [sic] the technique of the screen, and I was pointing out how stage actors rarely used their expressions and only their voices—they never had to project their expressions. Filmmaking was exactly the opposite; everything depended on pantomime.

‘How does one acquire the technique of pantomime?’ Sara asked me. I told her that it was mainly instinct, though there were artificial ways of teaching it. In the early days of films they would make a star look agonized by telling her bad news or releasing some rats at her feet.

‘How would you look,’ for example, ‘if I suddenly told you your mother was dead?’ To my surprise, Sara’s face suddenly went into tragic contortions, and she turned her head away. Then she explained. I had hit upon an unhappiest example I could possibly have chosen. Her mother had only just died.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Any issues regarding the film’s actors were somewhat easy to overcome in comparison to the technical challenges created by the addition of sound production. Patrick McGilligan paints a particularly grim picture of his circumstances during the shooting of Blackmail’s sound sequences in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light:

Blackmail moved into B.I.P.’s new temporary soundstage: a padded house on the Elstree grounds. The walls were cushioned with blankets. Draped felt was sandwiched under the corrugated iron roof. The sound cameras had to be encased in telephone-booth-like kiosks on wheels. The cameras couldn’t track or dolly without wheeling the entire booth around the room. Camera movement—already a Hitchcock trademark—basically ground to a halt.

The standard carbon arc lamps produced an incessant hum and sputter, so the cameramen began experimenting with five and ten-kilowatt incandescents [sic]. This worked out well for illumination purposes, but created a near-suffocating heat inside the stage area—‘like being in a bake house,’ as Freddie Young recalled. ‘In between calls, the actors lay down on the floor and napped as best they could in the sweltering heat.’

The camera booth, a smaller confined space, was hellish—an even more punishing sweatbox. It was covered in front by a thick glass panel that had to be wiped clean constantly with alcohol. The crew even grabbed their tea breaks inside. ‘The operator was locked inside,’ recalled Young, who was assistant cameraman on another B.I.P. talkie… ‘And there he’d stay until the end of the take, when he’d stagger out sweating and gasping for air.’

…Hitchcock, most of the time, was stationed in a separate recording booth that was every bit as hot and suffocating, wearing outsized earphones to monitor the audio quality.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

A comparison of the “murder sequence” as seen in both the silent and talkie versions of Blackmail speaks volumes. Consider an incredibly effective moment in the silent version where the camera moves with the artist as he makes his way closer and closer to Alice before he attacks her. There is no such moment in the “talkie” version, because moving the camera in this manner would have been impossible.

Blackmail - Silent Approach

This threatening moment from the silent version of Blackmail isn’t replicated in the sound version of the film.

Blackmail - Murder Mustache

The mustache shadow seen in this image was Hitchcock’s farewell to silent cinema.

One touch that did manage to make both versions of the film was often mentioned by the director in interviews:

“I did a funny thing in that scene, a sort of farewell to silent pictures. On the silent screen the villain was generally a man with a mustache. Well, my villain was clean-shaven, but an ironwork chandelier in his studio cast a shadow on his upper lip that suggested an absolutely fierce-looking mustache!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

While one feels that this sequence was better served in the silent version, the celebrated “knife” scene is an incredible scene that uses sound as dramatically (and as subjectively) as Hitchcock uses the camera:

“After the girl has killed the painter, there is a scene showing a breakfast, with her family seated around the table. One of the neighbors is discussing the murder. She says, ‘What a terrible way to kill a man, with a knife in the back. If I had killed him, I might have struck him over the head with a brick, but I wouldn’t use a knife.’ And the talk goes on and on, becoming a confusion of vague noises to which the girl no longer listens—except for the one word, ‘knife, knife,’ which is said over and over again and becomes fainter and fainter. Then suddenly she hears her father’s normal, loud voice: ‘Alice, please pass me the bread knife.’ And Alice has to pick up a knife similar to the one she’s used for the killing, while the others go on chattering about the crime.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

As Hitchcock would later write in an article about screen direction, the sequence is a clear example of “how careful use of sound can help strengthen the intensity of a situation.” The remarkable thing about this particular scene is that it was made during a time when few were making any effort to use sound dramatically. For most filmmakers, sound was merely a functional gimmick that often got in the way of their visuals. Hitchcock understood that it could be used to enhance the drama.

Scholars have also given the film’s climactic chase sequence plenty of attention throughout the years, but this may be because there is so much documented information available about the shooting of this sequence. One of the earliest of these articles was published while Blackmail was still in production:

“The British Museum… is to play quite a big part in the first British ‘talkie,’ Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail. Mr. Hitchcock has permission to film as much of the exterior and photograph as much of the interior as he wants, and his minions were at work a few days ago, in a ‘Flying Squad’ van, filming a ‘wanted’ man (Mr. Donald Calthrop), who scudded along Great Russell street, and dashed to cover up the steps of the Museum. Mr. Hitchcock, who seems to be turning rather to the Russian theory of casting types rather than professional actors, made his cameraman film the ordinary passers-by against whom Mr. Calthrop brushed. Though a few became ‘camera conscious,’ the effect was realistic. For the interior scenes, which include a chase along the galleries and a crash through the dome of the reading room, the Museum authorities have naturally not allowed facilities on the spot.” –The Adelaide Chronicle (Filming the British Museum, July 11, 1929)

Hitchcock was able to realize the interiors shots that made up the greater part of the film’s museum chase by utilizing a technique that he had learned during his stay in Germany:

“It was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schufftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage.

The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, ‘All right, bring back the Schufftan.’ I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock often insisted that this ending was a compromise.

“I never did it the way I really wanted to… In the first reel, I show the process of an arrest: the detectives go out in the morning; they pick up the man; he has a gun; they take it away and put the handcuffs on. He’s taken to the police station, booked, fingerprinted, and questioned. They take a mug shot and lock him up in a cell. And then we come back to the two detectives going to the men’s room and washing their hands, just as though they were two office workers. To them, it was just the end of a day’s work. The younger detective’s girl is waiting for him; they go to a restaurant, have a row and go their separate ways…

…The ending I originally wanted was different [than the ending used in the film]. After the chase and the death of the blackmailer, the girl would have been arrested and the young man would have had to do the same things to her that we saw at the beginning: handcuffs, booking at the police station, and so on. Then he would meet his older partner in the men’s room, and the other man, unaware of what had taken place, would say, ‘Are you going out with your girl tonight?’ And he would have answered, ‘No, I’m going straight home.’ And the picture would have ended in that way. But the producers claimed it was too depressing.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the so-called “happily-ever-after” that the producers forced on Hitchcock was eventually subverted by the director into what is decidedly not a happy ending. The film’s ending has layers of foreboding as we understand that neither Alice nor Frank are free. They have merely locked themselves into another kind of prison—together, and in bondage. In other words:

“The producers unwittingly chose the more radical ending because it ‘looked’ more conventional, a romantic happy ending. The censors who gave Buñuel his marvelously subversive conclusion to Viridiana made the same happy error… In any case, the imposed ending stands as an integrated ironic whole.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

If there was any hope as to the couple’s potential for future happiness, Hitchcock brilliantly destroys it during these final moments by bringing back the film’s most frequent motif:

“The most protean symbol is Crewe’s painting of the clown… The clown image itself assumes various expressions. Upon Alice’s arrival in the studio, it promises gaiety. It leers at her when the atmosphere turns erotic. When the same face accuses her after she kills Crewe, she slashes at its harsh laughter. The clown later catches the furtive Frank’s concealment of the glove and taunts him. At the end the painting is carried past Frank and Alice into the heart of the Yard, where it will point its accusing finger at the duped police force…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

It isn’t mentioned, but the painting also seems to be accusing both Alice and Frank as it is carried past them. It knows that they can never be happy. It knows that their future is grim. It even admonishes the audience for our complicity in these crimes. Do we even deserve a happy ending?

This is a publicity photograph of Cyril Ritchard and Anny Ondra that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

RELEASE AND RECEPTION:

“The first showing in Berlin of the British International Pictures production, Blackmail, was used to test the feeling of the public here on the vocal film.

The whole work was passed twice across the screen, once with and once without the voices, and the audience, consisting mainly of people connected with the cinematograph industry who had come by invitation, was asked to state on voting cards which of the two versions was preferred. The result was 685 votes for the silent and 439 for the, vocal rendering.

This decision is the more important because the work on the whole was very well received. One of this evening’s papers, for instance, says: ‘It does not, like others, merely pretend to be a sound film, but actually is one.’

The same writer finds that certain scenes were very successful and clearly indicated the many and extraordinary possibilities of the sound film. He also speaks of the ‘wonderful atmospheric truth; and ‘The minute penetration in the observation and reproduction of detail shown by the very gifted young producer, Alfred Hitchcock.’” –Hull Daily Mail (Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

It is interesting to consider that the silent version was the preferred version of Blackmail during this preview screening, and the silent version was more widely distributed since there was a great number of theaters that were still not set up to exhibit “talkies.” However, most of the existing press from the era seems to largely ignore the silent Blackmail as British International Pictures understandably preferred to promote their first sound picture, and this more popular version of the film was (by most accounts) an overwhelming critical success. Most critics showered “Britain’s First All-Talking Picture” with hyperbolic praise. Of course, there were exceptions. For example, Hugh Castle wrote an incredibly condescending—if mostly positive—review for the film that oozes snobbish pretention:

“Alfred Hitchcock had finished the picture at the time the talkie wave broke. Frenzied conferences resulted in his re-shooting most of it and making it into a dialogue picture. It must be said at the outset that, considering that he was toying with a medium about which we knew nothing, considering he had a finished picture to doctor into a talkie, considering his star could not speak English and had to be ‘ghosted’ throughout, he has made a good job of it.

Blackmail is perhaps the most intelligent mixture of sound and silence we have yet seen. It is not a great picture, it is not a masterpiece, it not an artistic triumph, it is not a valuable addition to the gallery of the world’s great films, it is not even, I think, a great box-office picture. But it is a first effort of which the British industry has every reason to be proud. It is Hitchcock’s come-back. While seeing it you can hardly believe that it was made by the man who gave us Champagne or The Manxman. For perhaps the first time in the history of the commercial cinema we are faced with a good film based on a dreadful play. Usually, however low the stage, the screen can be depended upon to go one lower.

As is usual in the more serious Hitchcock pictures, all considerations are secondary to the Almighty German Technique. If you shoot up a stairway you must tilt your camera until the result looks like Gertrude Stein reduced to a cross-word puzzle. If you want to show a Flying Squad car in full blast you begin by showing a revolving wheel and draw away until you run parallel to the car. Very clever, of course. Yet Hitchcock has a way—at his best—of justifying his weaknesses.

The first reel is silent. The dialogue is in arithmetic progression with the speed of the picture. The story, which is too thin from the commercial angle, and too inane from the artistic, concerns a detective in the Flying Squad whose girl murders an artist who attempts to seduce her… An altogether inconsequential theme for a good picture. Yet. Hitchcock succeeds in wedding sound with silence.

He has one sequence which, despite the way it has been glorified in the English press, gives one a clear idea of the potentialities of the medium. The girl overhears a chatterbox discussing the murder, while the memory of the knife is still fresh in her penny-dreadful mind. The talk dies down and down until only the word ” ‘knife’ emerges, stabbing, hurting. Inasmuch as that particular sequence is about the only one we have on record in which sound has been definitely instrumental in the development of the drama, the picture is worthwhile…

… Within twenty-four hours of the show being over, the optimists were predicting an immediate revival in British production. Blackmail has put us on top of the world. Pudovkin is dead, Eisenstein has ceased to be. Even Carl Laemmle, a greater figure than either, is forgotten for the moment! We shall see.” –Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Of course, Ernest Betts, in a later article entitled, “All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing” was less courteous (but even more pompous) in his mention of the film. It should come as no surprise to note that it too was an article for Close Up:

“I suppose it would not be denied that one of the essential gifts of the daily paper film critic of popular standing is to be able to write voluminously about nothing. However asinine the subject-matter, there is always plenty to be said about it. And we know in any case that the best journalists are very often those who can give an air of importance to things which really do not matter at all…

Blackmail is a good story, but it tells us nothing, except that if pretty girls will get involved with artists in Chelsea they may get seduced. But this is exactly the type of film of which I complain. What was the great focal point of all the critics over this particular film? It was admiration and analysis of its technique. Good heavens, to think of the stuff I have written, or attempted to write, about Hitchcock’s technique! I look at the stuff and I say: ‘This is awful! What on earth are you talking about? Where did you get hold of it all?’ And at once I am reminded of the dreary university lectures I used to attend on the textual sublimities of Chaucer, the alliterative fancies of Piers Ploughman, and so on. But the vital spark of Chaucer and Langland I never got. And nobody reads either of them now except as an academic exercise. For the truth is, these studies were concerned with the makings of literature, not with the thing made, which you can hold up to the light and judge as a living texture. It is as if you bought a clock for the works instead of the time…” –Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

Mr. Betts really shouldn’t have been allowed to write about film in the first place. Philistines shouldn’t masquerade as scholars, and those who can’t fully appreciate the cinema do not deserve it. In any case, this sort of attitude seems to have been the exception to the rule. The Times, for example, had nothing but praise for the film. What’s more, they were able to impart their praise without lacing it with condescension:

“More than the average significance attached to the showing of Blackmail, as it was the first full-length talking subject to be made in a British film studio. Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, the director, should be well pleased with his work, which easily surpasses its forerunners in the peculiar gifts which the sound film is acquiring for itself. From the first Mr. Hitchcock has held firmly to the principles of movement which underlie his craft. Blackmail is a true motion picture, and frees us from the idea that the camera must be transfixed and the pictorial flow of the film arrested merely for the pleasure of recording a variety of strange noises.

Based on the play by Mr. Charles Bennett, the story retells, even to the carving-knife, the Tosca-like theme of seduction which has served film and opera so faithfully. Mr. Hitchcock, sweeping aside American traditions of speed and glamour, has given us a piece of uncompromising ‘cinema’ whose lentisaimo drama unfolds without any attempt to lash itself into fury. Yet it is full of doom, and rolls on with fatal deliberation to its end. While the young Chelsea artist is entertaining the tobacconist’s daughter at his studio, the rhythm is so slow, the scene so artless, we never suspect the horror lying in wait behind the curtains. Thereafter the blackmail of the girl by the loafer in possession of her glove is conducted with the same mesmeric coolness, and we witness the scenes at Scotland Yard, the thrilling chase on to the roof of the British Museum, as if personal to these encounters. This would be satisfying enough as a silent film. It gains by the director’s use of sound, which calls for no display of thunder or circus swagger. During the first 10 minutes of the film not a character breaks into speech, for the story is quite able to express itself pantomimically [sic]. When at length the casual talk of detectives is introduced, the ear is not offended as by battery and assault. The words bring relief after, silence and the long, mounting suspense. Indeed, the dialogue throughout is admirably written and enters with a frank and pleasing cadence into its graphic background. Considerable use is made of voices ‘off the set,’ and the realistic note is heightened by this device, as when detectives are heard speaking in an adjacent room and we understand, though we do not hear, the words.

Aside from these technical considerations, the scene, story, and characterization have much to recommend them. They have the freshness of truth, showing us intelligible people on lawful and dastardly occasions in such settings as the London suburbs, Chelsea, Westminster, Bloomsbury, Piccadilly, and ‘the Yard.’ Mr. Hitchcock’s fondness for symbolism does not diminish and he loves the perspective of a good staircase ; but his camera has an original eye, always set at a vivid angle, and he can make time deepen and ache for its crisis in a way that has no parallel in skill since Warning Shadows.

Credit must be given to the cast, who speak and move with so sensitive a response to the story’s needs. Miss Anny Ondra, whom we saw not long ago in The Manxman, has infinitely improved her performance, as somebody has clearly improved, if not stolen, her voice. As the artist, Mr. Cyril Ritchard gives a study free of all ‘arty’ conventions, and produces a graceful villain in whom we can well believe. Miss Sarah Allgood, as a film mother, caught the outlines of that over-photographed character perfectly, and spared us the sentimental deluge. But perhaps the most brilliant performance was that of Mr. Donald Calthrop, whose blackmailer leaves us amazed that he is not oftener seen in British films. The Elstree studios can take pride in a production which should appreciably raise the stock of our fluctuating British industry, while it is but just to add that under Mr. Hitchcock’s guidance the talking film has taken a very definite step forward.” –The Times (June 24, 1929)

A review published in the Yorkshire Evening Post was no less flattering:

“The first really big audible film, Blackmail… touches the top note in talkie production, and is actually better than the best American speaking picture that has yet raised its voice in this country. The players speak quietly, naturally and distinctly, while even whispers are rendered effectively. There is no suggestion of a gramophone in the recording (R.C.A. Photophone sound on film) or in the reproduction.

In this screen version of Charles Bennett’s drama, Alfred Hitchcock has not been content to offer something in the nature of a photographed stage play with ‘canned’ dialogue, but has used the elastic medium of the cinema camera to form a large and impressive background to the story. It is a murder melodrama in which the action is confined entirely to London. Scenes in Scotland Yard, the Corner House and the British Museum have never been reproduced so faithfully in any film play. From the opening scene, the only silent portion of the picture in which detectives of the ‘flying squad’ arrest a ‘wanted’ man in the slums, the tension is never relaxed to the last ‘shot’ of all.

The theme may not be particularly novel, but it is treated in an unusual way. Also, the acting all round reaches a higher standard of excellence than in any talkie yet. It is stated that Anny Ondra, the Continental star, who plays the leading feminine role, employed a ‘double’ for her voice, but if so, synchronization is so nearly perfect that eye and ear are deceived… If British producers can keep up to the high level of Blackmail, there should be a bright future before the home talkie industry.” –L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Dundee Evening Telegraph went as far to imply that it was the Brit’s patriotic duty to see the film.

“There is really only one thing that is possible to say about Britain’s first all-talking picture, Blackmail, and that is—see it. Blackmail, made entirely at Elstree and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has anything that America had done beaten to a frazzle. The single fact alone that we hear the Mother Tongue as it should be spoken is sufficient to recommend it to all patriotic Britons. But Blackmail has more than that. The story is strong and dramatic, the acting is blameless, and the glimpses one gets of the interior of Scotland Yard and many other well-known and familiar places, and of the methods of that thrilling organization, ‘The Flying Squad,’ are intensely fascinating and homely [sic]. It is strange how much better one likes to see places that one knows on the screen, than scenes one has never visited…

…We are indebted to the brilliant direction of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his little details are touches of sheer genius, such as, for instance, the opening scenes of the film. Although Blackmail is a full-length ‘talkie,’ Hitchcock has given us the introduction to his film in a silence that is ten times more effective than any sound. He himself says there are moments in any film when silence speaks far more than words…

…Everything has been done to obtain realism, and the characters on the screen seem to be made of flesh and blood and not mere puppets, so deftly has the producer handled the material at his command.” –Dundee Evening Telegraph (First British Talkie a Triumphant Success, August 09, 1929)

It is clear that at least some of the critical enthusiasm for the film was born out of national pride and support for the British film industry (which was struggling to gain a foothold even within the confines of Britain). Blackmail seemed to offer hope that it could compete with American product, and this is why this review—and many of the others—make it a point to laud it favorably against American product.

It’s also interesting to note that many of these reviews make it a point to criticize Charles Bennett’s stage play even as it praises Hitchcock’s film. Both of these trends are on display in a review published by The Canberra Times:

Blackmail (says the London Daily Mail) is as far in advance of all other talking films which have hitherto been shown in London… It is—very nearly—a great film. The qualification is necessary, not in virtue of its merits in comparison with other talking films, but because of its own standards. In this film for the first time intelligent use is made of sound: the noise has not been thrown in as an overweight to the action. The director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, has been known always as a master of expressive technique. He has succeeded in translating into vocal terms the doctrines of expressionism which the great Germans like Pabst and Lubitsch have exploited in pictorial values. It is superb entertainment and it is the first credible picture of London and its characteristic life which has yet appeared on the screen. London is, indeed, its leading lady. The story is taken from the stage play of the same name (and in its taking contrary to established practice, Mr. Hitchcock has transmuted a play which was almost entirely tedious into an exciting entertainment)… Blackmail will come as a shock to the American film magnates, who cannot conceive goodness in a film not created after their own image.” –The Canberra Times (New English Talkie, October 11, 1929)

A review published in The Burnley Express is perhaps even more concerned with the British film industry than it is in the film:

“All who are interested in the welfare of the British film industry will be delighted with Blackmail… A good story has been most intelligently directed. A little is occasionally left to the imagination, and there are many subtle touches which we thought at one time could only be introduced by Continental directors… The acting throughout is of a standard seldom reached in ‘talkies.’ Anny Ondra, John Logden, and Donald Calthrop, who head the cast are all splendid. I hope the British films will continue to be successful enough to keep these fine players in their own country.” –Burnley Express (British Success at The Pentridge, January 08, 1930)

The same publication would publish another equally enthusiastic review only a few weeks later:

Blackmail… was practically the first British picture to challenge the supremacy of the American ‘talkies.’ Alfred Hitchcock, the director, proved himself a real master of his art by his masterly handling of this picture, which is sure to attract large audiences wherever it is shown… Although the director’ brilliant work would have of itself made the picture a success, the players have given him every possible assistance by gripping characterizations, and Blackmail will now remove any doubt anyone may have had regarding the future prospects of the British film industry.” –Burnley Express (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, January 24, 1930)

In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan suggests that the film was denied distribution in America despite rave reviews in the trades, but this seems to be untrue—or at least misleading—as there is much period evidence to suggest that it played to enthusiastic audiences after premiering at the Selwyn in New York on October 04, 1929. In fact, periodicals of the era even suggest that the film was “held over” and that Blackmail had “broken the house record” at the Davis theater in San Francisco.

There’s also a good number of American reviews for the film, and reading them makes it easier to understand why the British press made so many snide remarks about America’s film output. The American press was fairly dismissive of British pictures and treated them as if they were inferior and unimportant, so it should come as no real shock to learn that many of these American reviews weren’t nearly as positive as most of those that came out of the director’s home country.

Freddie Schader’s review for Motion Picture News is a case in point:

“This was heralded as the best British made talking film to date. If this is a sample of the best that the English can turn out, we have only to say that it is of the quality that in this country is usually booked into Class B and C houses and never gets into deluxe first runs. To bring this picture to Broadway and offer it at $2 top is going a little too far. It is a murder mystery tale with Scotland Yard as its background. The only one who really committed the crime goes scott-free. There’s no moral in that, is there?

But the picture has a moral. It is simply this: Never permit your love for cheese to persuade you to place a chunk of it at the head of your bed, and above all never leave a knife with it. For if this artist chap, who is the heavy, hadn’t left a piece of cheese and a knife with it on the table where it was possible to reach it from the bed he never would have been murdered…

…The chap who played the blackmailer must have been the architect of the British Museum judging from his familiarity with the various stairways, halls, and doors in the building during a chase which seemingly ran more than a reel. There is no one in the cast who matters to this market.” -Freddie Schader (Opinions on Pictures: Blackmail, Motion Picture News, October-December 1929)

Variety was just as dismissive:

Blackmail is most draggy. It has no speed or pace and very little suspense. Everything’s open-face. It’s a story [from the play by Charles Bennett] that has been told in different disguises—the story of a girl who kills a man trying to assault her…

…In performance the standout is Donald Calthrop as the rat crook. He looks it. Ondra is excellent as the girl. Dialogue is ordinary but sufficient. Camera work [was] rather well done, especially on the British Museum [in the chase finale] and the eating house scenes. A bit of comedy here and there, but not enough to be called relief.” -Variety (December 31, 1928)

This particular review actually makes one wonder if Variety was allergic to complete sentences, but Mordaunt Hall’s review on the New York Times is nearly as clunky and just as disparaging:

Blackmail, Britain’s first talking picture, which was wildly acclaimed by London critics, is… a murder story based on a play by Charles Bennett and in spite of its many artificial situations and convenient ideas it possesses a dramatic value that holds the attention. It has the advantage of authentic backgrounds, even to an episode for which the British Museum serves as a setting. Its vocal delivery is nicely modulated. The diction of the players is very English but none the less pleasing and suitable to the chronicle. Its continuity is smooth, the narrative being told without any extravagant flourishes, and the performances of the players reveal that two or three of them could do even better work.

The characters impress one as always being far too obedient to the director’s iron will. They do the wrong thing to set the story right. An artist who is murdered is more natural in life than any of the other persons. The photography is seldom up to American standards, for the director, Alfred Hitchcock, frequently fails to see that his scenes are adequately lighted and more often than not the images do not stand out as distinctly as they might if more attention had been paid to the shading of the interior walls…

…The dialogue in this film is frequently so staccato that it reminds one of the speech of Dickens’s Alfred Jingle. Three words are uttered and then follows a curious and artificial silence. Then there may be either four or five words with another hushed period. This talking matches the action of the players, for Mr. Hitchcock, to heighten the dramatic effect, often calls upon his actors to move with exasperating slowness. Anny Ondra, a Czechoslovakian actress who does not speak with any noticeable foreign accent, officiates as Miss White. She has a well-defined personality and does creditable work. The failing in her acting in some scenes is due to the direction…” –Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Apparently, Hall was unaware of the fact that Ondra’s voice was in actuality Joan Barry’s voice. What’s more, if there is any “failing in her acting,” this is likely do to the fact that she was merely mouthing words as Barry spoke her dialogue. His statement that the film was inadequately lit makes one wonder what he would think of the film noir genre with its use of shadow. In any case, it seems unlikely that the film was given a fair chance by American critics.

However, a review in Billboard did have a few kind words for the film despite criticism about “a slow beginning” and “inconsistent” direction.

“Lacking all the fancy photography and distracting features that visually accompany a foreign-made production, Blackmail proves to be one of the best pictures that has yet been imported to America. Except for a few minutes of a slow beginning the picture holds its audience with a dramatic intensity that few American productions during the current season have equaled…

…The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is inconsistent in parts, with a letter left to the artist which the police read several times without letting the audience know its contents, but, as a whole, the job is very well done. The recording throughout is excellent and American producers could learn a lesson from this production, which will prove a howling success in any theater in which it is played.” –J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Luckily, time has allowed for a more objective analysis of the film. It may not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best British thrillers, but it absolutely stands above a vast majority of the early sound pictures being made at that time.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the two discs in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from one of the lobby cards that was used to promote Blackmail during its original theatrical engagement:

Lobby Card

Of course, the image has been adjusted to include a stylized title that was taken from various vintage advertisements for the film.

Blackmail Menu

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

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS02

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

While the “talkie version” of Blackmail has seen several illegitimate “public domain” releases featuring terrible transfers that nearly rendered the film unwatchable, the “silent version” has never been given a home video release in North America. Those who have only seen one of these horrendous transfers of the “talkie version” will be surprised to discover that they haven’t actually seen the film at all. Meanwhile, the “silent” version will be completely new to an even greater number of people.

The talkie version is available in two distinct versions:

Disc One features the film in the typical 1.33:1 aspect ratio (along with the Silent Version), and Disc Two supposedly presents the film in the original theatrical ratio of 1.20:1. European films of this era were often shot in this ratio because the soundtrack utilized part of the frame. If this was the original 1.20:1 image, the horizontally stretched 1.33:1 version of the film would seem superfluous. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the 1.20:1 version of the film seems vertically stretched so that it is actually a 1.12:1 image! This is a rather disappointing revelation. As for the 1.33:1 version, one assumes that it has been included here because some of the shots were originally captured silently in the Academy ratio, and this version will allow those shots to shine (even if they were not originally presented in this manner except in the “silent version”). However, this is simply conjecture.

Blackmail Transfer Comparison

The largest of these images is distortion free. The top side image is from the 1.33:1 transfer and is horizontally stretched. The bottom side image is of the 1.20:1 transfer and is vertically stretched.

To be clear, the 1.20:1 version is slightly less distorted than the 1.33:1 version. However, most of the aforementioned “public domain” discs presented a horizontally stretched transfer, and familiarity with this particular brand of distortion might make this the preferred transfer for some viewers. In any case, stretching is a curse that has followed this film for decades.

Both of these transfers display significantly more contrast than the “silent version” of the film, and there is some noticeable print damage on display. However, the damage isn’t at all distracting. In fact, this is the cleanest that the film has ever looked on home video. What’s more, it is much clearer than any of those dreadful “public domain” transfers. Seeing this new transfer will be a revelation! Detail is surprisingly evident throughout, although the “talky” transfer does suffer somewhat when compared to BFI’s Restoration transfer of the “silent” version of Blackmail. I’d say that a restoration of the sound version is also in order.

The silent version is a healthier looking transfer that exhibits stronger blacks and quite a bit more detail throughout the film. A comparison between these two versions is a fairly good demonstration as to why film restoration is so incredibly important. BFI did a terrific job here, and Kino Lorber’s transfer is an admirable reproduction of their good work. There have been criticisms about this transfer that suggest that the transfer could have benefited from a bit more contrast, but we wouldn’t want just anyone tinkering with the knobs.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The “talkie” version of Blackmail is given a 2.0 DTS-HD transfer of the film’s original mono soundtrack that faithfully reproduces the film’s original sound without embellishment. Obviously, the primitive production techniques that were used limit the range despite being a clean representation of the original elements. Hiss is never an issue here, but it can occasionally be heard if one is listening for it. It is a vast improvement over all of the previous unofficial “public domain” releases! The fact is that this is an incredibly clean track. When one considers the film’s production history, it might even be considered a minor miracle.

The silent version’s 2.0 DTS-HD mix of the score is also an incredibly healthy transfer. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra comes through cleanly and clearly.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

First of all, we are not counting the Silent Version of Blackmail as a supplemental feature here, because the film is equally as important to this release as its “Talkie” counterpart.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas offers valuable comparison between the silent and sound versions of the film, mention’s Michael Powell’s collaboration, and points out errors in the continuity. It’s a better-than-average commentary track that engages the listener.

Anny Ondra’s Screen/Sound Test – (00:59)

Sound Test

What a treasure! Any Blu-ray release of Blackmail without this screen test would be incomplete.

As is mentioned in the above essay about the film, Anny Ondra was a Czech film actress with a rather thick accent that was decidedly inappropriate for the very British protagonist. Most sources agree that this sound test was done as a demonstration to Anny Ondra, and Hitchcock does mention that she had asked to hear her voice on film within the actual test itself. However, other details surrounding the test are somewhat vague. We know that Jack Cox was the cameraman with Hitchcock very much in control. Apparently, the director had a habit of trying to make his actors—both male and female—laugh with his “bawdy humor.” His exchange with Anny Ondra fell in line with this habit:

Alfred Hitchcock: Now, uh, Miss Ondra. You asked me to let you hear your voice on the talking picture.

Anny Ondra: [Giggles] But, Hitch, you mustn’t do that.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why not?

Anny Ondra: Well, because… I can’t speak well.

Alfred Hitchcock: Do you realize the squad van will be here any moment?

Anny Ondra: No, really? Oh, my god. I’m terribly frightened.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why? Have you been a bad woman or something?

Anny Ondra: Well, not just bad, but… uh.

Alfred Hitchcock: But you’ve slept with men.

Anny Ondra: Oh, no! [She turns away as she laughs.]

Alfred Hitchcock: You have not? Come here. Stand in your place, otherwise
it will not come out right, as the girl said to the soldier.

Anny Ondra laughs as she turns away from the camera.

Hitchcock: [turns to the camera] That’s enough.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon – (10:27)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Blackmail and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (06:28)

It would probably be better to label this as an “interview” rather than an introduction. There are way too many spoilers here, and it provides more information than the typical introduction. Some of Simsolo’s information is laced with questionable commentary, but this is a slightly better interview than the one that he provided for Murder!

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)

The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailers – (01:43)

Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailers – (02:04)

Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

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

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS05

Final Words:

Kino Lorber has finally given Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film (and his final silent film) a solid release on the Blu-ray format. Which version of Blackmail is superior? You can finally decide for yourself.

Review by: Devon Powell

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS06

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1928)

Staff Writer (The Film World, The Times, November 07, 1928)

Staff Writer (First English Talkers Start in Production, Amarillo Sunday News Globe, May 05, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, Nottingham Evening Post, May 23, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, The Times, June 24, 1929)

Staff Writer (The Talkie King Talks, Evening News, June 25, 1929)

L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, The Adelaide Chronicle, July 11, 1929)

Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Staff Writer (The First Two British All-Dialogue Pictures, Yorkshire Post, August 29, 1929)

Staff Writer (Hull Daily Mail, Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ October 4, Billboard, October 05, 1929)

Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Staff Writer (New English Talkie, The Canberra Times, October 11, 1929)

J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ Held Over, Billboard, October 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, Hull Daily Mail, November 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (British Success at The Pentridge, Burnley Express, January 08, 1930)

Staff Writer (Stageland, The World’s News, January 15, 1930)

Staff Writer (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, Burnley Express, January 24, 1930)

Robert Herring (Twenty-Three Talkies, Close Up, February 1930)

Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

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

Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

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

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 1-5, 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Some Aspects of Direction, National Board of Review, October 1938)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

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

Tom Ryall (Blackmail: BFI Film Classics, December 27, 1993)

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

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

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

Charles Barr (Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

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

Blu-ray Review: Notorious – The Criterion Collection

Spine #137
blu-ray cover

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.

Title.jpg

“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.

One Sheet.jpg

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

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Picture Quality:

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

Disc 1: 4K UHD

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

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

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

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

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

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Special Features:

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

Disc 1: 4K UHD

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

Feature Length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis

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

TV Version Footage – (SD) – (10:46)

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

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

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

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

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

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

Fast Film Facts (Textual Trivia Track)

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

Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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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)

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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

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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)

Blu-ray Review: Family Plot

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 03, 2013

Region: Region A

Length: 02:00:04

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

01 - Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

1.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

Storyboards: The Chase Scene – (SD)

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

Production Photographs – (SD)

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

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Final Words:

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

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Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Torn Curtain

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Release Date: October 1, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 128 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 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.

Title screenshot

“I got the idea from the disappearance of the two British diplomats, Burgess and MacLean, who deserted their country and went to Russia. I said to myself, ‘“What did Mrs. MacLean think of the whole thing?’

So, you see, the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view, until we have the dramatic showdown between the young couple in the hotel room in Berlin. From here on I take Paul Newman’s point of view…Then, the last part of the film is the couple’s escape. As you see, the picture is clearly divided into three sections.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

When scholars and critics write about the perceived failures of Alfred Hitchcock’s final five features, they tend to blame the decrease in quality on Alfred Hitchcock’s ego. The director had been lionized by the French nouvelle vague as a serious artist in the proceeding years, and there is no doubt that Hitchcock took notice. Certain critics have suggested that this forced the director to alter his strategy. While the director did have an ego that rivaled the size of his corpulent figure, this particular reasoning is faulty. It does not take in to account the environment in which these films were made. Context is everything.

The director’s downfall was not his own ego (although, one must admit that this is probably the more interesting theory). Alfred Hitchcock’s creative decent was instead the lucrative contract that he entered into with Universal Studios in August of 1964. He signed away ownership of Shamley Productions (including the distribution rights to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), as well as the rights to the five Paramount films that belonged to the director. This made Alfred Hitchcock a very rich man, and the third largest shareholder in Universal Studios. This financial security came with a price. The incredible amount of creative freedom that the director enjoyed during his years at Paramount was greatly restricted. Lew Wasserman was much more than Alfred Hitchcock’s agent now. As the head of Universal and its corporate parent MCA, he was now his boss.

This brings us to Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain… or Alfred Hitchcock’s compromised production of Universal’s Torn Curtain.

Alfred Hitchcock had originally planned one of his dream projects; an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. After completing Marnie, the director went to work with Jay Presson Allen on the screenplay. The film was originally intended to star ‘Tippi’ Hedren, but another actress would have likely been cast had the director been allowed to make the film. The trouble with the project was simply that it was a departure from what the suits of Universal considered a “Hitchcock film.”

Alfred Hitchcock discussed the film with enthusiasm in an interview for The Times in June of 1964 (a few months before his contract with Universal would kill the project). “I see it essentially as a horror story” claimed the director. The surviving drafts of the Mary Rose scripts suggest that the film was to be a mood piece that had more in common with Vertigo and Marnie than Hitchcock’s other work.

Universal preferred that the director focus on a project that was more in line with his classic spy films. This probably had something to do with the fact that James Bond thrillers were always good box office, and studio suits like to keep up with current trends. This would be the first of two productions that Hitchcock took on to satisfy Lew Wasserman and Universal (the other was Topaz).

Hitchcock had originally contacted Vladimir Nabokov requesting that he work with him on the screenplay for what would become Torn Curtain. Unfortunately, the two men were unable to synchronize their schedules. Alfred Hitchcock then reluctantly turned to Brian Moore to help him on the script. The writer eventually agreed to work with the director, but was never satisfied with the script.

Hitchcock was also disillusioned with the project, and eventually hired Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall in the hopes that they could save the script. Unfortunately, the script issues made for a chaotic production.

“We often found ourselves revising scenes only hours before they were to be shot… A messenger would be waiting to rush our latest rewrites across to the Torn Curtain sound stage, where they would be thrust into the hands of the actors even as Hitchcock lit them for the scene.” -Keith Waterhouse (as quoted in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light)

However, the problems inherent in Torn Curtain aren’t entirely script-related. As a matter of fact, many scholars agree that the script of Torn Curtain is actually quite strong.

The film would have been vastly improved by proper casting. Universal wanted Torn Curtain to be a return to the director’s glory days. This of course meant that Hitchcock would have to cast huge box-office stars. Hitchcock attempted to sign Cary Grant to the film, but Grant was unable to participate (and was planning retirement). This is just as well. The studio wasn’t at all interested in Cary Grant. Younger stars would bring a larger (and younger) audience to the theaters. Since Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were currently top box office attractions, they lobbied very hard for Hitchcock to cast both actors. Hitchcock wasn’t convinced that either actor was appropriate for the film, but eventually gave in to studio pressure. This resulted in a rather cold and distant relationship with both stars (especially Newman).

“Hitchcock took enormous exception to Newman’s detailed notes on the script and to the lengthy time the actor required to get into character.” –Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

It was also extremely costly to cast the actors. Andrews and Newman were paid more than Hitchcock had to spend on the rest of the production. This money could have been put to better use considering the fact that neither actor was appropriate for their roles.

Hitchcock’s contract with Universal even led to the end of one of Hitchcock’s most important creative relationships. Bernard Herrmann provided the score for every film that Hitchcock had made since The Trouble with Harry in 1955. (The composer was even hired as a sound consultant on The Birds, which didn’t have a score.) He was to continue this tradition with Torn Curtain.

Things were changing in the nineteen sixties. Films were marketed to teenagers, and these undeveloped minds needed to be appeased by the Hollywood factory. If younger audiences didn’t go to the cinema to see Hitchcock’s newest film, it would not be a financial success. Universal didn’t want an artistically appropriate score for Torn Curtain. They wanted a hit record that would interest these young minds and bring them into the cinemas. Herrmann’s scores were brilliant, but they weren’t commercial. The studio suits made their intentions clear to Hitchcock.

Lew Wasserman suggested that Hitchcock hire a younger composer to the film to deliver them the commercial score that Universal wanted. Alfred Hitchcock preferred to give Herrmann the chance to write such a score (hoping that the composer could pull off something that was both commercial and appropriate for the film).

Hitchcock wrote Herrmann a telegram on November 4, 1965 that elaborated on his intentions for the score.

“Dear Benny,

To follow up Peggy’s conversation with you let me say at first I am very anxious for you to do the music on Torn Curtain. I was extremely disappointed when I heard the score of Joy in the Morning. Not only did I find it conforming to the old pattern, but extremely reminiscent of the Marnie music. In fact, the theme was almost the same. Unfortunately for we artists, we do not have the freedom that we would like to have because we are catering to an audience and that is why you get your money and I get mine.

This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater. It is young, vigorous, and demanding. It is this fact that has been recognized by almost all of the European film makers where they have sought to introduce a beat and rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of the aforementioned audience. This is why I am asking you to approach this problem with a receptive, and if possible, enthusiastic mind. If you cannot do this, then I am the loser. I have made up my mind that this approach to the music is extremely essential. I also have very definite ideas as to where the music should go in the picture and there is not too much.

So often have I been asked, for example, by Tiomkin to come and listen to a score, and when I express my disapproval, his hands were thrown up and with the cry of ‘but you can’t change anything now. It has all been orchestrated.’ It is this kind of frustration that I am rather tired of. By that, I mean getting music scored on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.

Another problem this music has got to be sketched in an advance because we have an urgent problem of meeting a tax date. We will not finish shooting until the middle of January at the earliest, and Technicolor requires the complete picture by February 1st.

Sincerely, Hitch” –Alfred Hitchcock (Telegram to Bernard Herrmann as presented in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

Herrmann’s response suggests that the composer was willing to accommodate Hitchcock’s request. However, one can also read the reply as tactful condescension.

“Delighted [to] compose [a] vigorous beat score for Torn Curtain. Always pleased [to] have your views regarding music for your film. Please send [the] script indicating where you desire music. [I] can then begin composing here. [I] will be ready [to] record [the] week after [the] final shooting date.

Good Luck. Bernard” – Bernard Herrmann (Telegram to Alfred Hitchcock as presented in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

It isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Hitchcock might have been slightly frustrated with Herrmann when the score delivered was not what he requested. It is simply a shame that a good partnership was destroyed due to studio pressure. Herrmann was replaced with John Addison, and it is Addison’s music that is heard in the film. Herrmann felt that Universal was having a negative effect on Hitchcock’s creativity. The composer claimed that previous collaborations were always successful.

“…But he wasn’t then working for Universal. He became a different man. They made him very rich, and they recalled it to him. And I told Lew Wasserman he could go to hell. I do what I like to do… I said to Hitchcock, ‘What do you find in common with these hoodlums?’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Do they add to your artistic life?’ ‘No.’ ‘They drink your wine?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘That’s about all. What did they ever do? Made you rich? Well, I’m ashamed of you.’” -Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)

Bernard Herrmann wasn’t the only collaborator that Alfred Hitchcock lost. Marnie marked the final film that Hitchcock made with two other very important collaborators. Robert Burks (cinematographer) had worked with the director on every film he made since Strangers on a Train in 1951 (with the exception of Psycho), and George Tomasini (editor) had worked on every Hitchcock film since Rear Window (with the exception of The Trouble with Harry).  Tomasini had passed away on November 22, 1964. Robert Burks passed away in a terrible house fire on May 11, 1968. It is not clear why Burks didn’t participate on Torn Curtain, but he has no 1966 credits to his name. The talents of both men were sorely missed by both Alfred Hitchcock and his audiences.

If Alfred Hitchcock’s ego was his downfall, it was because it had been deflated. Universal’s overwhelming control over his productions, and the lackluster reception of his most recent films took a toll on his self esteem. If he bowed to the studio’s interference, it was because he no longer had the strength to challenge it. His creative team was no longer with him. He was growing older, and becoming less popular. His confidence had been destroyed.

Of course, critics and audiences were disappointed by Torn Curtain. Reviews weren’t hostile, but certainly expressed an uneasy dissatisfaction. Variety set the tone with their review on December 31, 1965.

“…Writing, acting and direction make clear from the outset that Newman is loyal, although about one-third of [picture] passes before this is made explicit in dialog. This early telegraphing diminishes suspense.

Hitchcock freshens up his bag of tricks in a good potpourri which becomes a bit stale through a noticeable lack of zip and pacing.” -Variety (December 31, 1965)

Bosley Crowther was more specific in his criticism of the film for The New York Times.

“Alfred Hitchcock was saying to a reporter for The New York Times a few months back that he had never known a time when it was so difficult to get a skilled script writer in Hollywood. Evidently he was hinting, in his familiarly suave and subtle way, that the script for his new film, Torn Curtain, which he was shooting at the time, was something short of perfection — at least, not what he would have it be.

If that was his innuendo, he was absolutely right. For Torn Curtain, which opened yesterday at the DeMille, the 34th Street East and the Coronet, is a pathetically undistinguished spy picture, and the obvious reason is that the script is a collection of what Mr. Hitchcock most eschews — clichés…

…The idea is not insufficient for a fictitious spy film of the sort that Mr. Hitchcock has many times managed to make scamper and skip across the screen. The locale and circumstances should do for a characteristic lark. But here he is so badly burdened with a blah script by Brian Moore and a hero and a heroine (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) who seem to miss the point, that he has come up with a film that plows through grimly, without any real surprises, suspense or fun.

Significant of something or other is the fact that the strongest episode — the most spontaneous and engaging — is the secret killing of a security guard who has trailed the hero to an East German farmhouse and discovered him making contact with a secret agent there. The frenzy with which Mr. Newman and a frightened farm woman, played with commendable spontaneity by Carolyn Conwell, go about slaughtering the fellow, who is harder to kill than Rasputin, and the deftness with which they dispatch him, are the most exciting details in the film.

There is also another episode which was probably expected to be uniquely amusing and moving, but, alas, it is so unsubtly don — so bluntly staged and archly acted — that it stands out like a sore, useless thumb. It is an episode in which the fleeing couple run afoul of a Polish countess, played by the little actress Lila Kedrova, who was so wonderful in Zorba the Greek, and are tediously importuned by her to help her get to America. It’s as though Mr. Hitchcock stopped his picture — stopped the chase, stopped everything — and gave the virtuoso Miss Kedrova a chance to do her stuff.

But at that she is more inventive, more expressive in this one little bit than Mr. Newman or Miss Andrews are throughout the film. They seem to have no sense whatsoever of the fancifulness of the piece, no ability or willingness to play it strictly with tongue in cheek. Mr. Newman goes at it really as though he meant to pick a German scientist’s brain, and Miss Andrews is like an English nanny who means to see that no harm comes to him…

…In these times, with James Bonds cutting capers and pallid spies coming in out of the cold, Mr. Hitchcock will have to give us something a good bit brighter to keep us amused.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times – July 28, 1966)

This review for The Times suggests that critics were slightly more receptive overseas. While disappointment is still palpable, criticism is cushioned by faint praise.

“…You see, the subject does seem – whichever way one looks at it – cut out for serious treatment, in black-and-white, with a lot of mystery and anguish… It is a nightmare situation which Mr. Hitchcock could so easily and so superbly treat nightmarishly a la The Wrong Man or Psycho. Instead, oddly, he has chosen to treat the whole thing as a lightweight adventure entertainment: the heroine’s mental agonies are rapidly soothed by some quick explanations on a studio hillside which looks like something out of the Ideal Homes garden section (no, of course, he is not a traitor — he is a spy), and then off we go on a very jolly battle of wits.

Once we adjust, and the film adjusts, this is very agreeable and expert. The couple’s adventures on the way out of Germany are handled in a straightforward suspense style, but then of that Mr. Hitchcock is a past master. …And it is certain that, at any rate, no one will be bored.

But still a slight feeling of dissatisfaction persists. There is too much careless plotting in the first half, and Mr. Hitchcock’s demonstration of how difficult it is in fact to kill someone misfires because the mistakes the would-be killers make are surely not those — equally damaging — that anyone in a similar situation really would make. And the stars, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, are after all pretty wasted on pasteboard roles, since both are better as actors than as straight star personalities. All the same, the film remains great fun for most of its length, and it would be silly to let regret for what it might have been and is not blind us to the considerable advantages of what it actually is…” -The Times (August 10, 1966)

Torn Curtain isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s best work, but it is certainly worth watching for the place that it occupies in his career.

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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

The Masterpiece Collection

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.

collection page

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (as seen at the top of this article).

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:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Since Universal’s Hitchcock Blu-rays rang from wonderful to horrible, it is difficult not to be apprehensive as a consumer. Luckily, their 1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks superior to all of the previous home video releases of Torn Curtain. The entire look of the transfer screams “celluloid” (which is a blessing). Detail is excellent and the image showcases textures and edges beautifully (even if the look of the film is somewhat soft). There are a few unfortunate issues with noise and other anomalies, but the intentionally subdued color palette is handled carefully here, and showcases accurate contrast and black levels. There may have been a few instances of slight color bleeding, but these were never distracting. Luckily any digital noise reduction seems to have been handled more carefully than on a few of the other Universal titles. This isn’t among the best transfers in the Universal Hitchcock catalog, but it is more than anyone can really expect.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Hitchcock’s sound design is as carefully constructed as his visuals, a proper audio presentation is essential. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix has been handled nicely here. The mix is clean and clear with well prioritized dialogue, and even the most subtle sound effects can be heard in the appropriate manner. John Addison’s music is given more room to breath because of the lossless quality of the track, which sets it apart from the DVD releases.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Torn Curtain Rising – (SD) – (32 minutes) –

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary for Torn Curtain is in a very different format than the documentaries for most of the other films in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. Instead of retrospective interviews from members of the cast and crew, Trev Broudy narrates the program, and relays information about the film’s production and reception to the audience. This narration is of course illustrated with clips from the film, production stills, and other related artifacts. The reason for this alternative approach is likely due to the fact that living members of the cast and crew were unable or unwilling to participate. This is certainly our loss because this format is less engaging. However, it is a lot better than nothing, and it is nice to have this included. There is quite a bit of interesting information here.

Scenes Scored by Bernard Herrmann – (SD) – (14 minutes) –

Fans of Bernard Herrmann will agree that this Blu-ray disc could have never been complete without this particular supplement. Audiences are given the opportunity to view a number of scenes with Alfred Hitchcock’s original score in tact (instead of John Addison’s music).

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (3 minutes) –

Universal’s trailer for Torn Curtain is not as clever as other Hitchcock trailers, but it is nice to have this marketing artifact included on the disc.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

This is a standard definition presentation of production stills, behind the scenes photographs, posters, and advertisements for the film. It is nice to have these included.

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Final Words:

Torn Curtain is recommended for all fans of Alfred Hitchcock. While this probably one of the director’s weakest American efforts, it still manages to pull off moments of absolute brilliance. Universal’s Blu-ray transfer is a definite upgrade from the previous DVD releases.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Materials

The Times (Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s Zest for the Cinema – June 24, 1964)

Variety Review (December 31, 1965)

Bosley Crowther (The New York Times – July 28, 1966)

The Times (Mr. Hitchcock’s Fiftieth Film – August 10, 1966)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks – 1999)

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

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:59:29

Video: 1080P AVC (MPEG-4)

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

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.37 Mbps

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

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

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

THE GENESIS

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

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

WRITING WITH EVAN HUNTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRITCHETT & ‘THE SAND DUNES’

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

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

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

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

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

THE DELETED SCENE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMPROVISATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FAWCETT FARM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TIDES RESTAURANT

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

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

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

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

THE SOUNDTRACK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ENDING

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

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

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

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

 Obviously, none of this is in the film.

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL EFFECTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECEPTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conception of the film, then, is compelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Andrew Sarris also admired the film upon its release.

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

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

LEGACY

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (5:11) –

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

Deleted Scene – (SD) – (4:20) –

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

Original Ending – (SD) – (3:40) –

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

Storyboards – (SD) – (24:21) –

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

Production Photographs – (SD) –

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

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Final Words:

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

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Source Materials:

Article (The Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

Daphne du Maurier (The Birds)

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

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

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

Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Interview (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Barry Forshaw (Crime Time)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Review (Variety, December 31, 1962)

Review (Time, Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach Review (Film Quarterly, 1963)

Review (The Times, August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut Review (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1963)

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

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

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

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

Review By: Devon Powell