Blu-ray Review: Shadow of a Doubt

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 04/Jun/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:47:49

Video: 1080P (VC-1, 23.976fps)

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

Alternate Audio: 2.0 French Mono DTS (24bit, 48 kHz, 768 Kbps)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.33:1 (1440×1080)

Bitrate: 32 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. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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Shadow of a Doubt was a most satisfying picture for me – one of my favorite films -because for once there was time to get characters into it. It was the blending of character and thriller at the same time. That’s very hard to do.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Shadow of a Doubt was very successful upon its release, and its reputation is still solid today. It received mostly positive reviews upon its release, though some reviews were mixed. For example, Bosley Crowther had a somewhat mixed reaction to the film:

“…Yes, the way Mr. Hitchcock folds suggestions very casually into the furrows of his film, the way he can make a torn newspaper or the sharpened inflection of a person’s voice send ticklish roots down to the subsoil of a customer’s anxiety, is a wondrous, invariable accomplishment. And the mental anguish he can thereby create, apparently in the minds of his characters but actually in the psyche of you, is of championship proportions and—being hokum, anyhow— a sheer delight.

But when Mr. Hitchcock and/or his writers start weaving allegories in his films or, worse still, neglect to spring surprises after the ground has apparently been prepared, the consequence is something less than cheering. And that is the principal fault—or rather, the sole disappointment—in “Shadow of a Doubt.” For this one suggests tremendous promise when a sinister character—a gentleman called Uncle Charlie—goes to visit with relatives, a typical American family, in a quiet California town. The atmosphere is charged with electricity when the daughter of the family, Uncle Charlie’s namesake, begins to grow strangely suspicious of this moody, cryptic guest in the house. And the story seems loaded for fireworks and a beautiful explosion of surprise when the scared girl discovers that Uncle Charlie is really a murderer of rich, fat widows, wanted back East.

But from that point on the story takes a decidedly anticlimactic dip and becomes just a competent exercise in keeping a tightrope taut. It also becomes a bit too specious in making a moralistic show of the warmth of an American community toward an unsuspected rascal in its midst. We won’t violate tradition to tell you how the story ends, but we will say that the moral is either anti-social or, at best, obscure. When Uncle Charlie’s niece concludes quite cynically that the world is a horrible place and the young detective with whom she has romanced answers, “Some times it needs a lot of watching; seems to go crazy, every now and then, like Uncle Charlie,” the bathos is enough to knock you down.

However, there is sufficient sheer excitement and refreshing atmosphere in the film to compensate in large measure for its few disappointing faults. Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville have drawn a graphic and affectionate outline of a small-town American family which an excellent cast has brought to life and Mr. Hitchcock has manifest completely in his naturalistic style…

…The flavor and “feel” of a small town has been beautifully impressed in this film by the simple expedient of shooting most of it in Santa Rosa, Calif., which leads to the obvious observation that the story should be as reliable as the sets.” – The New York Times (January 13, 1943)

One notices immediately that even this mixed review finds a lot to admirer about this gem. It probably didn’t surprise Mr. Crowther when Shadow of a Doubt became a tremendous success at the box office.

While many successful films eventually drift into obscurity, Shadow of a Doubt’s reputation has only improved with time. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto wrote:

“No doubt about it, this is Hitchcock’s first great American masterwork, one of his timeless, endlessly rich moral thrillers… Shadow of a Doubt is a model of the kind of moviemaking that is gripping, first-rate entertainment and much more: it is also a network of important themes and ideas. If to be called “great” a work must have great concerns. Then by any standard this film qualifies.” – The Art of Alfred Hitchcock

Other critics agree. For example, Roger Ebert included it in his list of great movies:

“…Much of the film’s effect comes from its visuals. Hitchcock was a master of the classical Hollywood compositional style. It is possible to recognize one of his films after a minute or so entirely because of the camera placement. He used well-known camera language just a little more elegantly. See here how he zooms slowly into faces to show dawning recognition or fear. Watch him use tilt shots to show us things that are not as they should be. He uses contrasting lighted and shadowed areas within the frame to make moral statements, sometimes in anticipation before they are indicated. I found while teaching several of his films with the shot-by-shot stop-action technique, that not a single shot violates compositional theory…” – Chicago-Sun Times

Shadow of a Doubt has earned its praise and its status as a classic.

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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.

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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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Overall, this is an extremely attractive presentation and there is very little room for rational criticism.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080P transfer should pleasantly surprise viewers. While picture is sometimes slightly softer than what one might expect, it seems to accurately represent the film’s source. There is a nice layer of grain that seems consistent with the film’s celluloid origins and adds to the overall cinematic experience. Contrast is beautifully handled and exhibit rich blacks and beautiful grays. Detail is surprising for a film of this age and the image seems to be free of any distracting DNR or edge enhancement. There is the occasional bit of print damage, but what can one expect from a film of this vintage?

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Sound Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The lossless mono mix included on the disc might show its age, but seems to accurately represent the film’s source elements. Dialogue is always clear and the music benefits from this lossless transfer (though there are moments when Tiomkin’s score suffers in clarity).

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film – (SD) – (35 min)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary on the making of this classic film contains many anecdotes from the production of the film and is packed with quite a bit of information. Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Hitchcock, Robert F. Boyle, and Peter Bogdanovich contribute to the wealth of “behind the scenes” information provided here. Fans should be thrilled to see it ported over for this Blu-ray release.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Vintage trailers are always amusing to watch, and this one is typical of what one expects from a trailer of this period. However, one suspects that this trailer was actually used to promote one of the film’s re-releases.

Production Drawings – (SD)

This is a collection of Production drawings by Robert Boyle, who served as the film’s art director. Cinemaphiles should enjoy seeing these sketches.

Production Photographs – (SD)

A collection of photos from the set of Shadow of a Doubt is also included.

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Final Words:

Shadow of a Doubt is one of the director’s best achievements and Universal’s much improved transfer of Shadow of a Doubt makes this Blu-ray release an essential purchase.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train DVD front cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: 09/Oct/2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:40:49

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 29.91 Mpbs)

Main Audio: 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 768 Kbps, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio:

French Dolby Digital Mono

German Dolby Digital Mono

Italian Dolby Digital Mono

Spanish Dolby Digital Mono

Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono

Japanese Dolby Digital Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German SDH, Italian SDH

Ratio: 1.36:1

Bitrate: 31 Mbps

Notes: This title has also had a few DVD releases. The most notable of these is a 2004 2-Disc Special Edition (which contains the same special features that are included on this Blu-ray release).

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“For your information, Strangers on a Train was not an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with.” –Alfred Hitchcock

Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s undisputed classics. The film was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who would go on to write The Talented Mr. Ripley. The novel is quite different from the novel, but one can see why it appealed to Hitchcock. The wrong man scenario had already been a favorite of the director, but the line between guilt and innocence had always been clearly drawn. In Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines actually had murderous thoughts about his wife. He benefited from her death and this makes the familiar themes even stronger than in the director’s previous work.

Alfred Hitchcock originally had hired Raymond Chandler to work on the script, but the working relationship was unsatisfying for both men. Chandler had a disagreeable temperament and had infamously clashed with Billy Wilder when they worked together on Double Indemnity. His personality clashed with Hitchcock’s working method of being actively involved in the writing process. He became so aggravated with the director that he was not above making cruel passive-aggressive comments. One day Chandler remarked loudly (and within earshot of the director), “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!” Needless to say, the director looked elsewhere for a writer to help him adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel into a screenplay.

“We’d sit together and I would say, ‘Why not do it this way?’ and he’d answer, ‘Well, if you can puzzle it out, what do you need me for?’ …The work he did was no good and I ended up with Czenzi Ormonde, a woman writer who was one of Ben Hecht’s assistants. When I completed the treatment, the head of Warner’s tried to find someone to do the dialogue, and very few writers would touch it. None of them thought it was any good.” –Alfred Hitchcock

To say that Chandler’s ego was bruised may well be the understatement of the century. He was livid and let Hitchcock know this in a letter dated December 6th, 1950.

“Dear Hitch,

In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing your mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a ‘far less brilliant mind than mine’ to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time. [Signed: ‘Raymond Chandler’]” -Raymond Chandler (The Raymond Chandler Papers)

With all of the trouble that Hitchcock had during the scripting stage, it is even more amazing that the end result has become one of the director’s most recognized and well loved classics. Perhaps this is because the film featured one of the most memorable villains in Hitchcock’s canon. Robert Walker’s portrayal of Bruno is one of the highlights of the film. He exudes a slimy charm that does little to camouflage the character’s many kinks, but goes a long way in creating sympathy for the psychopath. The public adored the film, and critics seemed to disagree with Chandler’s opinion of the script. One such example is the warm review that was published in Variety.

“Given a good basis for a thriller in the Patricia Highsmith novel [script adaption by Whitfield Cook] and a first-rate script, Hitchcock embroiders the plot into a gripping, palm-sweating piece of suspense.” -Variety (December 31, 1950)

There were a few critics that were less than impressed with the film. Bosley Crowthers wrote a decidedly hostile review of the film.

“…Hitchcock again is tossing a crazy murder story in the air and trying to con us into thinking that it will stand up without support. And again his instigator of evil is a weirdly unbalanced young man who almost succeeds in enmeshing a young tennis star in a murder plot…

…Perhaps there will be those in the audience who will likewise be terrified by the villain’s darkly menacing warnings and by Mr. Hitchcock’s sleekly melodramatic tricks. Certainly, Mr. Hitchcock is the fellow who can pour on the pictorial stuff and toss what are known as  ‘touches’ until they’re flying all over the screen. From the slow, stalking murder of a loose girl in a tawdry amusement park to a “chase” and eventual calamity aboard a runaway merry-go-round, the nimble director keeps piling “touch” and stunt upon “touch.” Indeed, his desire to produce them appears his main impulse in this film.

But, for all that, his basic premise of fear fired by menace is so thin and so utterly unconvincing that the story just does not stand. And the actors, as much as they labor, do not convey any belief — at least, not to this observer, who will give Hitchcock character plenty of rope…

…Also, it might be mentioned that there are a few inaccuracies in this film that may cause some knowing observers considerable skeptical pause — such as the evidence that you get to the Washington Union Station by going into Virginia over the Memorial Bridge. Also a purist might question how a tennis star could race around Washington half the night and then win three grueling sets of tennis in a Forest Hills tourney the next day.

Frankly, we feel that Mr. Hitchcock is ‘touching’ us just a bit too much and without returning sufficient recompense in the sensation line.” -The New York Times (July 4, 1951)

Needless to say, this opinion was not shared by the majority. The film was a massive success. The film is often listed as one of Hitchcock’s best and is essential viewing. Roger Ebert even included the film in his list of “Great Movies.”

“…The movie is usually ranked among Hitchcock’s best (I would put it below only Vertigo, Notorious, Psycho and perhaps Shadow of a Doubt), and its appeal is probably the linking of an ingenious plot with insinuating creepiness. That combination came in the first place from Highsmith, whose novels have been unfairly shelved with crime fiction when she actually writes mainstream fiction about criminals…” -Chicago Sun Times (January 1, 2004)

Those who have yet to see the film are advised to remedy this unfortunate oversight.

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The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is housed in the standard blue case with new cover art. I must admit that I prefer the artwork used for the 2-disc Special Edition DVD release of the film. I believe that it used some of the original promotional artwork for the film.

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The static menu utilizes the same artwork and is supported by music from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for the film.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers provides Hitchcock fans with a near perfect image transfer. The film is notable for being the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s successful collaboration with Robert Burks, who would work on all of the master’s subsequent films through Marnie (with the notable exception of Psycho). Burks’ noir-esque cinematography looks especially crisp on this transfer. The contrast is stark and solid with rich blacks and solid whites. Shadow detail is also excellent and free from crush. The picture exhibits wonderful clarity and the added resolution enhances details that were lost in standard definition transfers of the film. The film remains faithful to its celluloid source and features a cinematic layer of grain. There is no noticeable DNR or Edge enhancement marring the image. The only issue that one might notice is the occasional nick or speck of dirt on the print (and they would have to really be looking for them to notice their existence).

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Sound Quality: 

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The lossless 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio sounds better than it has ever sounded (and likely as good as it will ever sound in the future). The track exhibits remarkable fidelity, but there is a certain thinness to certain areas of the track (notably with the music). These issues seem inherent in the source and are never distracting. The dialogue and effects were well mixed and the track represents the best possible listening experience available.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Preview Version of Strangers on a Train – (SD) – (01:42:57)

The infamous “Preview Version” of Strangers on a Train was once referred to as the “British Version” due to a labeling error. The film was previewed prior to release with this version and then altered for release. This version of the film was given a limited theatrical release in 1996.

This early cut of the film runs about two minutes longer and ends differently than the theatrical cut. The theatrical version has the superior ending, but I prefer the longer opening train sequence on this cut of the film.

This feature is presented in standard definition, but looks a bit better than it did on the 2004 DVD release of the film.

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Audio Commentary

The commentary track includes quite a long list of participants (some more engaging than others). I was surprised that one of the more interesting commentators was Andrew Wilson (Patricia Highsmith’s biographer), who discussed the film’s source novel. There is also a short interview excerpt from Whitfield Cook (who worked with Hitchcock on the film’s treatment). This was one of the more interesting inclusions. Actress Kasey Rogers discusses her memories of shooting the film and her comments are extremely welcome. Perhaps the best commentator was Hitchcock himself (via his interview with Peter Bogdanovich).

Less engaging are comments from people who worked with the director on later films. Joseph Stefano seems a bit out of place here. He discusses Strangers on a Train, but the fact that he is discussing a film that he wasn’t involved with is a bit awkward. The list goes on. This is certainly an engaging listen, but it is a rather uneven track. Warner Brothers should be applauded for their efforts in attempting to provide fans with an informative commentary track. One must remember that the film is 62 years old and most of the cast and crew who worked on the film are now deceased.

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Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic – (SD) – (00:36:40)

This is the closest that the disc comes to a “making of” documentary on the film. The documentary features Farley Granger, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, Robert Walker Jr., and several film scholars and biographers. The piece is consistently interesting, and offers viewers a few ‘behind the scenes’ stories from the set. Andrew Wilson also discusses differences in the novel and Hitchcock’s film and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is briefly mentioned as well. This is not as comprehensive as one might prefer, but this 2004 supplement is worth seeing.

Strangers on a Train: The Victim’s P.O.V. – (SD) – (00:07:22)

Kasey Rogers (alias Laura Elliott) discusses portraying Miriam in the film. One wonders why Mrs. Rogers wasn’t included in the disc’s “making of” documentary, but this featurette is extremely welcome and possibly one of the better supplements included on the disc.

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Strangers on a Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan – (SD) – (00:12:46)

Contemporary director, M. Night Shyamalan discusses his admiration of the film. It is a curious addition to the disc.

The Hitchcocks on Hitch – (SD) – (00:11:20)

This feature includes home movies of Hitchcock and his family supplemented by interviews with his daughters and granddaughters about their memories of Alfred Hitchcock. This featurette focuses on Hitchcock’s family life and this makes it a slightly more sentimental experience. Fans of the director will welcome this featurette.

Newsreel Footage: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Historical Meeting” – (SD) – (00:01:08)

This silent newsreel footage is a curious inclusion. It is difficult to decipher what is happening without the sound.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (00:02:34)

This is perhaps not as amusing as some of the director’s later trailers, but it is always interesting to see how classic films were sold to audiences.

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Final Words:

Warner Brothers has given Strangers on a Train a wonderful Blu-ray release that includes a near perfect high definition image and a respectable collection of supplementary material.

Review by: Devon Powell