Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock – British International Pictures Collection

BIP - Blu-ray Set Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: November 26, 2019

Region: Region A

Length:

The Ring – 01:45:44
The Farmer’s Wife – 01:52:12
Champagne – 01:45:37
The Manxman – 01:40:36
The Skin Game – 01:22:34

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (24-bit)

Subtitles: English (The Skin Game)

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Ring – 23.98 Mbps
The Farmer’s Wife – 24.99 Mbps
Champagne – 17.00 Mbps
The Manxman – 16.99 Mbps
The Skin Game – 16.99 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray

British International Pictures Logo

“[British International Pictures] rapidly gathered assets—a couple of distribution companies, cinemas, subsidiary production companies, and Elstree film studios. It also signed up as much talent as it could back up its claims to eminence in the newly secure-seeming British film industry. Most importantly, it acquired Alfred Hitchcock, who was prized away from Michael Balcon and Gainsborough with promises of new freedom, bigger and better budgets—a considerable inducement since Gainsborough’s finances were painfully modest and Hitch had not been happy with either of his assignments since The Lodger.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978) 

When Hitchcock joined British International Pictures in June of 1927, he fully expected to be able to make ambitious films of his own choosing.

“Hitchcock was envisioning various future projects, including ‘two epic films dealing with the Mercantile Marine and the English railways.’ There was also loose talk of Hitchcock’s chronicling England’s general strike of 1926—a ten day nationwide stoppage, generally regarded as a historic opportunity and dismal defeat for English labor—in a film that would depict ‘the fistfights between strikers and undergraduates, pickets, and all authentic drama of the situation,’ in his words. Already in pre-production, according to B.I.P. was an experiential ‘film symphony’ called ‘London,’ which Hitchcock had written in collaboration with Walter Mycroft… Hitchcock’s ‘London’ would offer a heaping slice of humanity.

None of these experimental, populist, or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary Hitchcock pictures would ever be made. The director’s actual deal with B.I.P. included option clauses that hinges on his ability to churn out four B.I.P. productions a year, maintaining the staggering level of output he had managed in 1927. As fast as he was, Hitchcock couldn’t keep up that pace and hope to make the kind of films that called for studio to risk more time and expense…

…What Maxwell really wanted to do in the foreseeable future was to consolidate his English Audience. His twelve picture, three year deal with Hitchcock was part of a general speedup, and a studio policy that called for more—for cheaper—films to justify its overhead. Photographing English plays and books, with English actors, was front-office conservativism that took no account of Hitchcock’s higher aspirations. And so the next several years at Elstree, from 1928 to 1932, would prove the busiest of Hitchcock’s career, but also at times the least personal.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Luckily, his first film under this new contract was one that he chose himself. It was an original story by Hitchcock entitled The Ring.

The Ring - TITLE

The Ring (1927)

“You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The fact that Alfred Hitchcock took sole credit for the original story (a practice unique in his career) may hint at the director’s affinity for the project, but it may also be the result of a temporary falling out with Eliot Stannard. He had collaborated with the writer on all five of his previous films and would work with him again on his subsequent silent endeavors (with the notable exception of Blackmail). While Walter Mycroft is reported to have worked on the script, it is usually suggested that his contributions consisted of minimal touch-ups and advice on the film’s boxing sequences. In any case, the bulk of the script was left to Hitchcock (and most likely his wife Alma) after Stannard’s exit from the project.

Today, it may seem as if the film’s subject was an unusual choice for the director, but boxing wasn’t totally outside of the Hitchcock’s milieu.

“I was interested — I used to go to the Albert Hall. I think the thing, strangely enough, that fascinated me about boxing in those days was the English audience that would go all dressed up in black tie to sit around the ring. It wasn’t the boxing that fascinated me so much, although I was interested in the shop, all the details connected with it. Like pouring champagne over the head of the boxer at the thirteenth round, if he was going a bit groggy. You’d hear them uncork the champagne bottle and pour the whole bottle over his head. All that kind of thing I was interested in, and put it all in the picture.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s creative freedom extended to the film’s casting, and he exorcised this freedom by offering Lilian Hall-Davis the role of Mabel (a.k.a. “The Girl”). He had admired her work in a film entitled The Passionate Adventure and wanted very much to work with her. He decided to offer Carl Brisson the role of “One-Round Jack” as he was a former middleweight champion, and his rival in and out of the ring would be played by Ian Hunter despite his lack of boxing ability. In fact, Hitchcock used Hunter’s shortcomings as a fighter to good effect within the film:

“The high-spot of the picture was the last round of a boxing match. Brisson had to win. Brisson was a trained boxer. He was, actually, a boxer before he was an actor. Hunter was only an amateur. It was, incidentally, his first—and very successful—film.

On the day we were shooting this last round—the previous rounds had been photographed before with trick photography to speed up the effect by ‘under-cranking’ (turning the camera more slowly)—I ranged four cameras [a]round the set and told them to go all out. Ian went off to the local tavern with Gordon Harker. He lunched off bread and cheese and beer. How he must have regretted it!

I exploited Brisson’s knowledge of boxing. I told him to box as he would if it were a genuine match. So Brisson, with the eye of a practiced athlete, attacked Ian’s body. Every time he connected, Ian remembered the beer. It was a raging hot day. He was sweating like a bull. They fought on and on, Hunter swinging at Brisson’s handsome elusive face; Brisson plugging blow after blow to the mark; Hunter puffing, and blowing, and grunting with every smack he took.

Finally, I gave the signal for the last of it. Brisson was to knock out his opponent. He launched a blow at Hunter’s body. Hunter caught his breath with a gulp, that sort of gulp you give when a football catches you amidships. He swayed, tottered, sat down. He was congratulated on a brilliant piece of acting. I got some kudos for a good piece of direction. Actually, neither of us deserved any credit. I was not directing. Hunter was not acting. He was really ‘out.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Gordon Harker filled the role of Jack’s best friend and trainer.

“I found Gordon Harker on the stage, too. I was looking for a Cockney “second” for Carl Brisson in The Ring, and I happened one night to drop into Wyndham’s Theatre to see Edgar Wallace’s ‘The Ringer.’ Harker was playing a Cockney part, and I saw in him the very man I needed. Incidentally, it has always seemed to me to be rather a waste of Harker’s talents that he should almost invariably be cast as a Cockney. He is a brilliant character actor, and perhaps you’ll remember that I gave him the role of a Devon farmhand in The Farmer’s Wife. He made a very good job of it…” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

In addition to his role in the two aforementioned films, Harker would also appear in Champagne. It is clear that the director admired the actor’s work, and his performances in these silent efforts are incredibly entertaining. (The fact that he also appeared in Elstree Calling is also be significant, but the director preferred to downplay his participation in this project.)

The Ring would also mark the first time that Alfred Hitchcock worked with Jack Cox as his cinematographer.

“…It marked a clear division in the camera department between the Hitchcock films made at Gainsborough and those made at B.I.P. Cox was an ‘effects’ cameraman—an expert in ‘blurred images, overlays, and double exposures,’ in the words of [Duncan] Petrie… That was more important to Hitchcock than framing or lighting genius. Hitchcock really didn’t need compositional advice; his staging within the frame was always strongly in his mind, and annotated in the script. What Hitchcock wanted was a cameraman who would take a dare. And even veterans like Cox were sometimes taken aback by Hitchcock’s taunts and demands… Cameramen learned to trust Hitchcock’s instincts; he not only stipulated the setups, but, with his art training would whip out a sketch-pad, draw the image, and specify the focus…

…Starting with The Ring, Cox would photograph all ten of Hitchcock’s B.I.P. films during the prolific years between 1927 and 1932. Then, after an interval of several years, they would reunite on The Lady Vanishes. Eleven Hitchcock pictures: only Robert Burks, another virtuoso cameraman, whom Hitchcock found at Warner Bros. in America, would work with him more.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Unlike many of the director’s later efforts at British International Pictures, The Ring was given a reasonable budget and plenty of time to achieve Hitchcock’s intended vision. It was shot during the summer of 1927 (July and August), and the production was an incredibly smooth one. Cox’s adventurous spirit came in handy when it came time to shoot the film’s Albert Hall climax as the Schüfftan process was employed. This would blend live action footage with painted backgrounds, photographs, and miniatures.

The freedom that he was given during the production of The Ring resulted in a spike in the director’s creativity. He was working on a project that he was excited about, and this resulted in some very interesting visual touches.

“This is also the film in which I introduced a few notions that were widely adopted later on. For instance, to show the progress of a prize fighter’s career, we showed large posters on the street, with his name on the bottom. We show different seasons—summer, autumn, winter—and the name is printed in bigger and bigger letters on each of the posters. I took great care to illustrate the changing seasons: blossoming trees for the spring, snow for the winter, and so on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

This sort of transition may seem quaint by today’s standards, but filmmakers are still using similar techniques to show the passing of time in their films. A film director should be able to tell a story visually, and this is why Hitchcock is without equal. He is and has always been a visual storyteller. However, he later questioned some of his celebrated visual touches in The Ring.

“I must say that in recent years I have come to make much less use of obvious camera devices… The other day a journalist came to interview me, and we spoke about film technique. ‘I always remember,’ he said, ‘a little bit in one of your silent films, The Ring. The young boxer comes home after winning his fight. He is flushed with success—wants to celebrate. He pours out champagne all [a]round. Then he finds that his wife is out, and he knows at once that she is out with another man. At this moment, the camera cuts to a glass of champagne; you see a fizz of bubbles rise off it and there it stands untasted, going flat. That one shot gives you the whole feeling of the scene.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that sort of imagery might be quite good: I don’t despise it and still use it now and then. But is it always noticed?’ There was another bit in The Ring which I believe hardly anyone noticed.

The scene was outside a boxing-booth at a fair with a barker talking to the crowd. Inside the booth a professional is taking on all comers. He has always won in the first round. A man comes running out of the booth and speaks to the barker. Something unexpected has happened. Then a straight cut to the ringside: you see an old figure 1 being taken down and replaced with a brand new figure 2. I meant this single detail to show that the boxer, now, is up against someone he can’t put out in the first round. But it went by too quickly. Perhaps I might have shown the new Figure 2 being taken out of paper wrapping—something else was needed to make the audience see in a moment that the figure for the second round had never been used before.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

It is interesting to note that his criticism is focused on the issue of clarity. The audience was always on Hitchcock’s mind. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t flock to the theaters upon the film’s release despite a whirlwind of critical praise.

“…The picture had a succès d’estime, but it was not a commercial hit.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

His next film was also praised by most critics (and is still praised by many scholars), but it was often dismissed by Hitchcock.

TFW - TITLE

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

The Farmer’s Wife, I would say, was again merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

With their working relationship patched-up and running efficiently, Eliot Stannard was back to work on the script of The Farmer’s Wife, and his adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the Eden Phillpotts play. This was always a source of regret for Hitchcock as he preferred more cinematic material. One assumes that the film was an assignment, and it is unclear how much freedom Hitchcock actually had over the production. Periodicals from the period suggest that Eden Phillpotts may have had as much (or more) control over the film as Hitchcock.

“I hear that the producers of the forthcoming film version of The Farmer’s Wife are searching diligently for real Devon ‘types,’ and that Mr. Eden Phillpotts is himself assisting them. He has also personally chosen the locations for the film.” –Staff Writer (The Farmer’s Wife, Western Morning News, September 16, 1927)

The original play was written by Phillpotts and premiered in London in 1924, and it would eventually be performed over 13,000 times on that stage before Laurence Olivier went on tour as the lead in 1926. Such success would have given the writer plenty of contractual authority. Even so, it is likely that the film’s director had a hand in the casting since both Lillian Hall-Davis and Gordon Harker appear in the film. In fact, much of what Hitchcock has said about the production concerns the actors (although, his comments aren’t specific to the film’s production):

“…This was in certain respects a tragic film, for tragedy came to two of the leading players in it. The star of the picture was Jameson Thomas. He had, of course, been in numerous films before this, and he was undoubtedly one of England’s most popular players. He is in Hollywood today, playing supporting roles. He left England to take his wife to California. She was very ill. The Californian sunshine seemed to offer the only hopes of a cure. So Jimmy Thomas packed up everything in this country and moved to Hollywood—in vain. His wife died in spite of the sacrifice.

Thomas’s leading lady in The Farmer’s Wifewas Lillian Hall-Davis. She was an amazing girl. On the set she suffered from acute self-consciousness. She had an acute inferiority complex in regard to her ability to play certain parts, and I remember that she turned down an extremely good role because she wasn’t sure she could do it well enough. Actually, she could have played it with ease. Yet, in private life she was altogether a different person. She possessed a terrific personality and amazing vivacity. It was with the deepest regret that, two or three years ago, I read of her death in tragic circumstances.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Tragic indeed. Davis committed suicide on October 25, 1933. A neighbor named Herbert French found the actress with her head in the oven, a razor in her right hand, and a wound in her neck.

As for the film itself, we know that production commenced in October of 1927, and that Hitchcock shot much of it on location in Surrey and Devon, Somerset in order to capture an authentic countryside setting. Interestingly, the director enjoyed his visit to the rustic locations and would soon purchase a weekend retreat in Shamely Green as a result of his time there. The film’s camera work is also noteworthy:

“When the chief cameraman got sick, I handled the camera myself. I arranged the lighting, but since I wasn’t too sure of myself, I sent a test over to the lab. While waiting for the results, we could rehearse the scene. I did what I could, but it wasn’t actually very cinematic.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

During this same interview, the director claimed that he didn’t remember much about the film and seemed both detached from and disappointed in it. “There was too much dialogue,” he told Truffaut. “It was largely a title film… I know that filming that play stimulated my wish to express myself in purely cinematic terms.

Unfortunately, his assignments at B.I.P. would consist largely of stage adaptations that didn’t always allow the director’s cinematic ideas to flourish.

Champagne - TITLE

Champagne (1928)

According to most sources, Champagne originated with an idea by British International Pictures’ scenario editor and literary adviser Walter Mycroft.

“Someone had this idea, let’s make a film about champagne. And my thought was — it’s kind of a corny idea really — why don’t we do one about a little girl who works at Reims in the cellars and always watches the train go off carrying champagne. And then she eventually gravitated to the city and became a kind of whore and was put through the mill and eventually went back to her job, and then every time she saw champagne go out, she knew, ‘Well, that’s going to cause some trouble for somebody.’ That was scrapped. They thought it was much too, they didn’t use the word ‘highbrow,’ but, oh, that wasn’t entertainment. So we ended up with a hodge-podge of a story that was written as we went through the film and I thought it was dreadful.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Readers may remember running across Mycroft’s name earlier in this article as he would have collaborated with Hitchcock on a number of his earlier projects. Most sources agree that Hitchcock was enthusiastic about the hiring of Mycroft, who had previously worked as a journalist before joining BIP as the head of their story department in latter months of 1927. The director’s enthusiasm may have been due to the fact that the journalist was one of the founders of the Film Society. His own membership in the film society may have given him the erroneous idea that Mycroft would champion his ideas and secure him a certain amount of creative freedom. Unfortunately, this would not be the case at all, and his relationship with Mycroft would soon become somewhat antagonistic.

In fact, Champagne may have been the project that sealed their mutual loathing. His own ambitious ideas were cast aside for being uncommercial and potentially depressing after Betty Balfour—an incredibly popular British film star—signed on as the leading actress. After all, audiences didn’t want to see Britain’s biggest star being dragged through the trenches of a hard and apathetic universe. They wanted to laugh and enjoy her charismatic charm. Hitchcock had little choice but to re-write his gritty drama as a bubbly comedy of little consequence. The new script was rushed, and Hitchcock’s interest in the project evaporated.

Assistant cameraman, Alfred Roome, remembered that the film entered production without a finished script. This is, unfortunately, all too evident when one watches the finished film. Alfred Hitchcock tried to keep his spirits up by experimenting stylistically.

“…The opening and closing images, shot through a champagne glass, would become one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated effects [up to that point]. ‘I was the one who had to focus through the bottom of the glass,’ remembered assistant cameraman Roome. ‘Hitch had it made specially by a glass manufacturer who put a lens into the bottom of a giant champagne glass so we could shoot through it and get a clear picture of what was happening at the other end of the room. We all said it wouldn’t work. Most people said that of Hitch’s ideas, but they almost always did work.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Michael Powell—a man now known as one of the British cinema’s most brilliant directors—was hired as a stills photographer during the film’s production. He later remembered that Hitchcock wasn’t at all happy about Balfour’s casting and wasn’t pretending otherwise. In fact, he tried to keep Powell from shooting publicity images of the actress! This is undoubtedly due to the fact that he blamed her casting for the change in the project’s direction.

In any case, the director had plenty to distract him from his disappointment over the fact that this project was now merely an inconsequential assignment. An extremely personal project was also in the works, and he and Alma would eventually name her Patricia. Production on Champagne wrapped in July of 1928—and his only daughter would be born on the seventh of that same month.

The Manxman -  TITLE.jpg

The Manxman (1929)

“The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

Some scholars would dispute the film’s place as Hitchcock’s final silent feature since his silent version of Blackmail is very much an indelible part of his filmography. However, this quote speaks volumes about the director’s own attitudes towards the project. To his mind, The Manxman was merely another B.I.P assignment that he was obliged to direct.

The Manxman, again, was a kind of old-fashioned story. An assignment, more or less. It was a domestic melodrama, you know, the illegitimate child and the brother and the judge—one of those things full of coincidences—the brother happens to be a lawyer and the poor girl gets involved with a fisherman and so on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

He would tell François Truffaut that the film was “a very banal picture” and lamented the fact that the story was taken from “a very well-known book by Sir Hall Caine” since the novel’s popularity made it necessary for him to “respect that reputation and that tradition.” Hitchcock preferred to simply take a basic idea from a source and build visually striking cinematic situations from that idea. In other words, he felt that the forced fidelity to Caine’s original novel resulted in a film that wasn’t entirely his own. (This was a feeling that he would have quite often during his time at B.I.P.)

It’s impossible not to agree with the director when he describes the story as old fashioned. The scenario seems clichéd and outdated when viewed today, but these handicaps don’t overwhelm the film. In fact, The Manxman is one of the director’s most beautiful silent efforts. Much of this is due to some incredible location shooting in various communities along the beautiful Cornish coast. (These locations largely stood in for the Isle of Man, but there was also some incidental shooting at the actual island.) Meanwhile, Anny Ondra’s performance is a heartbreaking testament to her talents as a silent actress.

In any case, his collaboration with Ondra on Blackmail would return the director to material that he could fully embrace.

The Skin Game - TITLE

The Skin Game (1931)

In fact, one might expect the success of Blackmail to put Alfred Hitchcock in a stronger position at Elstree, but he was still a contract director and was obligated to accept the assignments that were handed to him. He followed his first “talkie” with an incredibly faithful adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, but the director felt that the incredibly talky play didn’t allow him to tell the story cinematically. As a result, the film’s enormous critical success wasn’t particularly gratifying for Hitchcock. He felt that the success was O’Casey’s and not his own. While Murder! leaned more towards mystery than it did suspense, it did allow the director to exercise his creativity. Unfortunately, his following project would be yet another talky stage property.

“[The Skin Game] was taken from a play by John Galsworthy. I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The truth is probably more complex. Hitchcock himself listed Galsworthy’s work as a foundational influence on him, but one imagines that he would have been more at home adapting ‘Escape‘ as this would have fallen in line with his penchant for suspense yarns. What’s more, the playwright’s contractual control over his film adaptation limited Hitchcock’s own creative input:

“…Galsworthy, like O’Casey, had a B.I.P agreement that outlawed, in his words, ‘dialogue except what is written and passed by me, and no tampering with the play’s integrity.’ Hitchcock would be hemmed in on The Skin Game more than on Juno and the Paycock. Though he worked to open it up visually, he’d adhere very closely to the play—shooting most of the scenes with multiple cameras for a fluid soundtrack (they still ‘couldn’t cut sound in those days’).

Galsworthy felt strongly about casting, and he presented Hitchcock with a list of preferred actors, though his contract gave him no say in this matter. Yet in the end, the leads must have pleased the playwright. Edmund Gwenn had been the original Mr. Hornblower, the nouveau rich industrialist whose hard-driving tactics ignite a feud over a parcel of land between two families, one aristocratic and the other parvenu. Gwenn also played Hornblower in the silent film; now he would reprise his famous role for Hitchcock. And Helen Haye, another original cast member who had returned for the Anglo-Dutch silent, was back as snobby Mrs. Hillcrist. The rest was a mix of Hitchcock semi-regulars and actors under studio contract.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ursula Jeans & Phyllis Konstan

Ursula Jeans was originally cast in the role of Chloe Hornblower, but when Jeans needed an emergency operation for appendicitis on the eve of shooting, Hitchcock gave the role to Phyllis Konstam: “I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstom’s woebegone expression when I told her that we should have a tenth ‘take’ on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Hitchcock went on record about the difficulties he was having with his adaptation of The Skin Game during his publicity campaign for Murder!:

“It has been found that the technique demanded by the stage rarely lends itself to the screen…The more perfect the stage technique, the more difficult becomes anything like a faithful screen adaptation. Galsworthy’s brilliantly clever stagecraft in The Skin Game is giving us no end of trouble in finding the true screen equivalent.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Making Murder!, Cassell’s Magazine, August 1930)

One imagines that this is polite publicity speak for Hitchcock’s true opinion of his newest project as he was more direct in later interviews. “Photographed theatre, really,” he told Peter Bogdanovich. “I didn’t alter the Galsworthy play very much. It opened up a little bit more than Juno. Not too much, though.” He was able to apply his creativity to the film’s auction sequence. This scene finds a meek and mumbling auctioneer presiding over the frenzied bidding as the two rivaling families attempt to purchase the same piece of property. Hitchcock highlights the bidding with wild pans and quick cuts that place the viewer in the chaos of the scene. The audience experiences the sense of desperation that is at the heart of the scene. Both families need this property if they are to maintain their way of life.

John Galsworthy’s way of life was somewhat different than Alfred Hitchcock’s, but the director did enjoy his initial meeting with the playwright.

“In preparation for the film Hitch, still an avid playgoer …was invited down to week-end at Galsworthy’s country house. He found Galsworthy living in some style…surrounded by a large household. Hitch put his foot in it immediately. Mrs. Galsworthy asked him what kind of music he liked. ‘Wagner,’ replied Hitch, ‘he’s so melodramatic.’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Mrs. Galsworthy conclusively; ‘we like Bach.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

It was likely during this visit that the director attended a dinner party that was hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Galsworthy.

The Skin Game was responsible for the most cultured dinner party I ever attended and for one of the best malapropisms I have ever heard. The dinner party was at Mr. Galsworthy’s house. When we sat down, Galsworthy himself ‘set’ the subject for discussion. ‘Let us discuss,’ he said, ‘words. Words in relation to their meaning and in relation to their sound.’ One guest suggested the word ‘fragile’ as descriptive. Another advanced the opinion that the French ‘fragile’ was even more delicate in its sound. A third stressed the claims of crepuscular’ as being ‘filled with the nuance of the twilight.’ I sat amazed at the feeling the guests had for the sound-sense of words.

A course or so later, Mr. Galsworthy gave out another topic. ‘Let us discus,’ he said, ‘the various states of consciousness.’ Then he amplified the topic in answer to my question. ‘The states of consciousness are like stratified layers of earth. The crust is compete consciousness and the core is the subconscious. Between lie an infinite series of gradations of consciousness.’

That was my first contact with The Skin Game. Now for the contrast. Edmund Gwenn had to wear a toupee—a sort of hair wig—in the production. We got it from Clarkson’s. It cost three guineas. One day someone from the accounts, keeping an eagle eye on the pence, came rushing down. ‘Why go to Clarkson’s for a three guinea toupee?’ he asked angrily. ‘Do you think the firm is made of money? You can get one at Austin Reed’s for a guinea.’

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Have Austin Reed started a makeup department?’ ‘Makeup?’ said he. ‘I thought you were buying a tropical helmet!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

While The Skin Game is seen as little more than a mere footnote in the director’s filmography today, it wasn’t considered a failure at the time of its release. Actually, if the director would claim that it was one of the “most successful pictures” that he made during this period. The trouble was that the film’s strengths and weaknesses—or successes and failures—seemed to belong more to John Galsworthy than to Alfred Hitchcock. The film wasn’t a creative triumph for the director; it was merely an assignment that he was obliged to complete. In fact, Hitchcock’s treatment by British International Pictures was by now looking depressingly similar to the situation which had first prompted him to abandon Gainsborough.

The Ring - SS08

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber house their two Blu-ray discs in a standard blue case with a sleeve featuring a very young Alfred Hitchcock. The case is further protected by a cardboard slip sleeve that exhibits the same artwork. It’s an attractive package and an appropriate design for a release like this one.

BIP - Menu BIP - Menu 2

Both discs contain uniform menus that utilize the same photograph. They are attractive and easy to navigate.

TFW - SS06

Picture Quality:

3 – 4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is probably best to start by saying that each of these five transfers are significant improvements over those seen on the previous Lionsgate (and Studio Canal) DVD editions. Grain is more natural looking and resolves better here than the other format allowed. What’s more, the higher resolution allows for a bit more detail to come across (although the images are soft due to the limitations of the medium at the time that these films were made). They look fairly good considering their age, and BFI should be commended for their restoration efforts. The results are surprising as clarity is especially strong when one considers their age. The Manxman may very well be the sturdiest transfer in the set while The Ring is probably the weakest of the silent restoration transfers. However, each of the four silent films are impressive efforts. The Skin Game is probably the weakest transfer in the set as the credits are jittery and there seems to be some unfortunate cropping on display (though neither of these issues is nearly as problematic as is seen in the various bootleg copies that are still so readily available). The master for this film was provided by Studio Canal, and Kino cleaned this master up a bit. However, this film hasn’t been given a proper restoration.

champagne-1928-010-film-leader

Notes about Champagne

“Although the restoration team were able to work from an original negative, which meant we were able to get very good image quality, this was a mixed blessing… At the beginning of the restoration process we were concerned that for a Hitchcock film there were some clumsily juxtaposed shots and framing errors, as well as the occasional shot exhibiting substandard acting or shots that were held uncomfortably long.

Further examination revealed an instruction scratched into a leader (blank film attached to the start of a reel to enable threading into the projector) saying ‘2nd neg’. From this we deduced that this negative was assembled from second-best shots, kept as a backup in case of damage to the original or for making additional prints for export. This was studio practice at the time… These were edited together from different takes that you can clearly see were taken at the same shoot, but were not taken simultaneously with a second camera. As this negative is the only original element in existence we will never know exactly what the film looked like as it was originally released.

The evidence of editor’s marks on the negative of Champagne confirmed our suspicions. An extensive international search of archives and film collections didn’t turn up any further copies of Champagne that we could use as a guide. One 16mm print loaned by a collector turned out to be made from our negative so could supply no new information…” –Bryony Dixon (Restoring Hitchcock #4: The Trouble with ‘Champagne,’ BFI)

In other words, the restoration is a beauty to behold, but Champagne can be seen as a “lost film” in many regards since what remains is essentially made up of alternate/inferior takes instead of the footage that had originally been chosen for release. Obviously, having this is certainly better than nothing at all, but it is important to make this point quite clear.

Champagne - SS05.jpg

Sound Quality:

3-4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

All five of the included films have been given 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio transfers, and the four silent efforts include new scores. The Ring has been scored by Meg Morley, The Farmer’s Wife was scored by Jon Mirsalis, Champagne boasts a score by Ben Model, and the music for The Manxman was provided by Andrew Earle Simpson. Each of these scores adequately support their respective film, and their transfers are quite strong.

Kino’s transfer for The Skin Game is as strong as can be expected considering the film’s age and the recording methods utilized by the production. There is some slight background hiss throughout the track, but this is never terribly distracting. Dialogue isn’t as sturdy as one might hope, but it is certainly audible and understandable. This is a huge improvement over the many bargain basement “bootleg” releases of The Skin Game as those were nearly impossible to sit through.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Disc One

Feature Length Commentary for The Ring with Nick Pinkerton

Nick Pinkerton’s commentary gets off to a slow start, but those who continue listening to his track will be rewarded with some interesting information that might add to their appreciation of the film. Interestingly, his commentary seems to morph into the sort of “sports commentary” that one hears during sporting events when the film’s climactic boxing match gets underway. However, there were some interesting revelations during this portion of the film as well.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Audio Interview Excerpts: The Ring, and The Farmer’s Wife – (07:33)

Fans will be happy to note that the disc includes the excerpts from Hitchcock’s interview with François Truffaut that focus on The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife. Frankly, we disapprove when Blu-rays don’t include these excerpts. It’s obvious from their conversation that he prefers The Ring to The Farmer’s Wife, and the greater portion of these seven and a half minutes is devoted to that film.

Disc Two

Feature Length Commentary for Champagne with Farran Smith Nehme

Farran Smith Nehme’s commentary for Champagne is more immediately engaging than the Nick Pinkerton commentary for The Ring and no less informative. It isn’t one of the best commentaries we’ve heard as third party tracks rarely live up to those offered by people who have actually worked on the film. This one offers enough information and observation to make it a worthwhile addition to the disc.

Feature Length Commentary for The Manxman with Farran Smith Nehme

Nehme’s commentary for The Manxman is on par with her track for Champagne. There’s quite a bit of worthwhile material here. Fans should enjoy hearing it.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Audio Interview Excerpts: Champagne, The Manxman, and The Skin Game – (12:17)

This disc also includes excerpts François Truffaut’s infamous interview with Hitchcock. Of course, these segments cover Champagne, The Manxman, and The Skin Game. It seems as if some of their conversation covering these titles hasn’t been included (particularly in the case of The Skin Game), but what is here is certainly appreciated. It’s clear enough that none of these titles are among his favorites.

The Skin Game - SS05.jpg

Final Words:

Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection is an incomplete assembly of the films made during one of Alfred Hitchcock’s fallow periods. The Ring is one of the director’s most interesting silent efforts, but films like Champagne and The Skin Game are less essential to casual viewers. Meanwhile, one wonders why they didn’t include Juno and the Paycock, Rich and Strange, and Number Seventeen in this set. This would compete the collection (since Blackmail and Murder! were released individually).

Kino Lorber’s set offers an opportunity for fans to watch films that were made during a time when Hitchcock was just a cog in the studio wheel. Many of these titles were merely assignments and were made on deficient budgets. It is nice that they are available in high definition, and Kino Lorber should be commended for their efforts.

Review by: Devon Powell

Portrait

Source Material:

Staff Writer (The Farmer’s Wife, Western Morning News, September 16, 1927)

Alfred Hitchcock (Making Murder!, Cassell’s Magazine, August 1930)

Staff Writer (British Films: Activities at Elstree, Sydney Morning Herald, December 05, 1930)

Staff Writer (Illness Among Screen Stars: Productions Held Up at Elstree, Dundee Evening Telegraph, December 05, 1930)

William A. Mutch (The Skin Game, The Filmgoer’s Annual, 1932)

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)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

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

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

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

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

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

Bryony Dixon (Restoring Hitchcock #4: The Trouble with Champagne, BFI, 2014)

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

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, ‘Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?’ Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

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

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times, August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

Box Set Art 5

Box Set Art 1

Box Set Art 2

Box Set Art 4

The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

Menu 1

Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Trouble with Harry

cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 02/Jul/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 99 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

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

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: This title has had at least two 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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“I didn’t change [the novel] very much. To my taste, the humor is quite rich. One of the best lines is when old Edmund Gwenn is dragging the body along for the first time and a woman comes up to him on the hill and says, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?” To me that’s terribly funny; that’s the spirit of the whole story. I’ve always been interested in establishing a contrast, in going against the traditional and in breaking away from clichés. With Harry, I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it into the sunshine. It’s if I set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water. These contrasts establish a counterpoint; they elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

The Trouble With Harry was a very troubled production. Hitchcock decided to shoot the film on location, but the weather never cooperated and the acoustics in the gymnasium (where the sets were built) created unusable sound. The problems seemed to elevate when an overhead bracket supporting the enormous VistaVision camera broke and it came crashing down, nearly crushing the director. The camera merely swiped Hitchcock’s shoulder, but one of the crew members was injured in the incident. When the  production fell behind schedule, Hitchcock was forced to move his production back to the more predictable confines of the Hollywood studio.

However, the production wasn’t completely cursed. The film gods were smiling on Hitchcock when it came time to cast the picture. The casting of Shirley MacLaine seems to have been divine providence:

“…I would learn to dance and eventually become a chorus girl and understudy to Carol Haney in the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game…

Unknown to me, there were two men in the audience of that Pajama Game performance that would change my life forever; Hal Wallis (the Hollywood producer who discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), and Doc Ericson (a representative for the legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock).

Here I was – a nineteen year old chorus girl, with no acting experience, [and] Hitchcock put me in a room with Mildred Natwick, Edmund Gwenn and John Forsythe. These were the premiere actors on Broadway and now were my co-stars. We were together during the first reading and having no previous experience, I just read it instinctively. When we were finished, Hitch, in his quirky sense of humor, said, ‘You have the guts of a bank robber.’ Because of Hitch’s reputation, I knew I had the job!

I was scared, but curious, and yearned for the learning experience as I joined the film crew in Vermont. I have fond memories of all the cast. In the beginning John Forsythe tolerated me as an amateur, but then realized I had an instinct for acting and started to appreciate this gift. I learned so much from all of them.

Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, The Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont, but he really appreciated the food. There was always plenty on the set and I ate all of it because it was free. In my days as a chorus girl I hadn’t had much to eat. I existed on graham crackers and peanut butter. When I began the picture I was svelte and lithe, but by the time I buried Harry for the last time, the head of the studio called me… I think the word was blimp.

Hitch had a mind-tease code that kept you alert. One morning he came waddling toward me, eyes twinkling, roly-poly stomach well out in the lead.

‘Pleasant period following death.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Genuine chopper, old girl, genuine chopper.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘And after your first line – dog’s feet.’

Finally, Hitch explained his version of cockney rhyming slang:

Good mourning. (Pleasant period following death)

Real-Axe. (Genuine chopper)

After you start your first line, paws. (Dog’s feet)

What a mind. I have the greatest appreciation for this mystery-meister who gave me the freedom of artistic expression, to seek and learn from some of the best. Hitch, wherever you are, I love you and will see you again…”Shirley MacLaine

A star was born. MacLaine went on to be one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading ladies, but never appeared in another Hitchcock film. However, the production also marked the beginning of the director’s working relationship with Bernard Herrmann and the composer would go on to score all of the director’s films through Marnie. Music scholar, Robert Barnett, called the composer’s score a milestone in his career:

“It was his first Hitchcock outing. The music itself (or elements of it) may be familiar under another title. When Herrmann was in the studio for Phase Four Decca in 1968 he fashioned a concert piece from it and called it ‘A Portrait of Hitch.’ He did this because he felt that this music reflected Hitch’s dry and diabolic sense of humor…

…The orchestral specification is modest: double wind, four horns, harp and strings. As was his usual custom he uses the orchestra in smaller groupings selecting a color from his palette to match mood and image.

The music he wrote for the film exposes veins and arteries of winning freshness. Not one of the forty tracks is poor or misjudged. Herrmann gives every sign of having been totally immersed in lyricism and of enjoying every moment of it…” -The Bernard Herrmann Society

Unfortunately, the film wasn’t very successful at the box office. Alfred Hitchcock speculated that the film was improperly marketed to the public.

“I think The Trouble with Harry needed special handling. It wouldn’t have failed commercially if the people in the distribution organization had known what to do with the picture; but it got into the assembly line and that was that.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

This might very well be the case. In an article about Jerry Pickman (a publicist at Paramount), Pickman admits that he didn’t think that the studio would be able to market the film.

“Hitchcock wanted to make a picture called The Trouble with Harry. He had a little girl named Shirley MacLaine– ‘I never heard of her,’ said the studio head–and an old man, Edmund Gwenn, and it was going to cost $800,000. We all shook our heads, the answer was no. Well, every morning I would have the studio send me a capsule of all the announcements they made to the press. They would give me a summary, and the next morning I see they announced The Trouble with Harry. I was a little annoyed but I wasn’t going to go down and challenge the president of the company…

… Balaban walked in, had his lunch, and as he walked around he said, ‘Is something bothering you? You didn’t say hello to me.’ I said, ‘I’m annoyed, Barney. Why did we have the meeting yesterday? We decided not to make the picture and the studio wired this morning saying we’re going ahead with it. If you changed it, why didn’t you tell us?’ He said, ‘I was too embarrassed. After we all said no, the studio head called back and said, ‘Barney, I can’t tell Hitchcock no, because he gave us To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. I haven’t got the courage to say no to him, so I told him we were going to make the picture.’ And that’s how the picture was made. That was how the company was run.” -Jerry Pickman

It has been written that The Trouble with Harry nearly ruined Hitchcock’s career, but this is not the case at all. It is more accurate to say that the film was simply ignored. Critical reception wasn’t particularly complimentary, but it certainly wasn’t hostile. Bosley Crowther’s review was typical of the critical reception towards the film:

“…It is not a particularly witty or clever script that John Michael Hayes has put together from a novel by Jack Trevor Story, nor does Mr. Hitchcock’s direction make it spin. The pace is leisurely, almost sluggish, and the humor frequently is strained. The whimsy inclines to be pretentious, such as Miss Natwick’s cheery reply to Mr. Gwenn’s expressed hope that her father’s death was peaceful: “He was caught in a threshing machine.” Or again, when the two are out exhuming the freshly buried corpse, she says, ‘After we’ve dug him up, we’ll go back to my place and I’ll make you some hot chocolate.’” – The New York Times (October 18, 1955)

Today, this seems like an unfair analysis. A recent review published in The Guardian labeled the film a “masterpiece.” I disagree with this statement, but the film is certainly on par with other comedies of the period and better than most of them. It stands out as a decidedly unusual film in the director’s canon and has earned the admiration that it now receives from cinemaphiles.

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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.

collection page

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.

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:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080P transfer of The Trouble with Harry is really surprisingly beautiful. Robert Burks’ autumn landscapes are vivid and accurate and viewers will see detail and clarity never before observed on any previous home video format. Contrast is perfectly rendered with deep black levels and the source print is nearly immaculate. While grain is certainly apparent, this is inherent in the film’s celluloid source and contributes to a more cinematic experience. It is actually rather difficult to find something to complain about.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

I suppose that some might complain about the lack of a 5.1 mix, but the 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio is accurate and a vast improvement over those included on previous home video releases. There is no perceptible hiss present and the track seems to be free from other annoying signs of age as well. Dialogue is consistent and always intelligible and Bernard Herrmann’s music has more room to breath due to the lossless nature of this track. For one to expect anything better than this seems rather unreasonable.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

All of the supplementary materials from the DVD releases have been ported over to this Blu-ray disc.

The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over – (SD) – (32 minutes)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary on the making of The Trouble With Harry is a delightful look into the making of this often overlooked film. John Forsythe, John Michael Hayes, Herbert Coleman, Patricia Hitchcock, and Steven Smith (Bernard Herrmann’s Biographer) discuss the production.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This photo gallery plays by itself as a sort of slide show, but there is the option of skipping to the next photo.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

The trouble with the “Theatrical Trailer” on this disc is that it is not an actual Trailer. It is merely a promo for the VHS release of the film. This is a shame. It would have been interesting to see how Paramount chose to market this unique film.

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Final Words:

The Trouble with Harry has been given an amazing Blu-ray release. I would recommend adding it to your collection.

 Review by: Devon Powell