Blu-ray Review: The Lodger – The Criterion Collection

Spine #885

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 27, 2017

Region: Region A

Length:

The Lodger – 01:30:24

Downhill – 01:50:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

The Lodger – 2.0 Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 2304 kbps, 24-bit)

Downhill – 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 kbps)

Ratio:

The Lodger – 1.33:1

Downhill – 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Lodger – 29.36 Mbps

Downhill – 15.09 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray debut of “The Lodger,” but the film was given a DVD release by MGM. Unfortunately, the MGM edition is now out of print. The release also marks the Blu-ray debut of “Downhill.”

Title

The Master Finds His Voice

PART ONE: THE LODGER

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influence by my period in Germany. The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me. It was the first time I exercised my style. In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture… I took a pure narrative and for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is rather easy to understand why Alfred Hitchcock considers The Lodger his true film debut, and the most obvious reason for this was his choice of subject matter.

“I had seen a play called ‘Who Is He?’ based on Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s novel ‘The Lodger.’ The action was set in a house that took in roomers and the landlady wondered whether her new boarder was Jack the Ripper or not…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Obviously, the property was ideal for a Hitchcock project and the director tackled every aspect of the production with unprecedented relish. He had already worked with Eliot Stannard on the scripts for both The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle and brought the writer on board to help with The Lodger as well.

 “With the director whispering in his ear, Eliot Stannard wrote the script over the first two months of 1926; then Hitchcock went back over it one last time, breaking it down into several hundred master scenes, making notes and little sketches to guide each camera setup, ‘each one specifying the exact grouping and action of the characters and the placing of the camera,’ in his words. The script was always written with the flow of pictures in mind, but storyboarding was the final revision. Stannard was encouraged to suggest visual ideas, but again the more important contributor was the expert in continuity and cutting: Alma.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film to feature a man wrongly accused of a crime was considered a major compromise by the director.

“Of course, strictly speaking, he should have been the Ripper and gone on his way. That’s how Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes wrote the book. But Ivor Novello was the matinee idol of the period and could not be the murderer. The same thing was true of Cary Grant in Suspicion many years later. So, obviously, putting that kind of actor into this sort of film is a mistake because you just have to compromise.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock claimed that he would have preferred to have the Lodger “go off in the night so that we would never really know for sure” if he is guilty of the murders or simply an eccentric innocent. This particular ending reminds one of Hitchcock’s ending for The Birds. It is impossible to guess how audiences of the time might have welcomed such an ending, but it is easy to imagine it having an extremely powerful effect on the viewer.

“The script satisfied the front office concerns that Novello’s character be proved innocent. But that left the second issue: Novello was a stiff, mannered actor, whose technique leaned heavily on his repertoire of tedious ‘handsome’ poses. That was a challenge to be addressed in the directing, but one Hitchcock had already anticipated, incorporating into the shooting script a brooding visual design to eclipse Novello’s flaws.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ivor Novello

Ivor Novello was one of Britain’s biggest matinee idols when he starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

Vintage newspapers and trade articles suggest that the film entered production in the early months of 1926 (as early as February), although Patrick McGilligan suggests that principal photography didn’t begin until March. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surviving production documents from this period in Hitchcock’s career, so a specific date is impossible to pinpoint. However, one can say with some degree of authority that some of Hitchcock’s already established crew returned to bring The Lodger to the screen—and Alma’s work as his assistant director and editor is no doubt the most significant. Baron Ventimiglia also returned as the film’s primary cameraman and lavish sets were designed by C. Wilfred Arnold.

Of course, certain scenes were shot on location which could sometimes be a significant logistical challenge for a film crew even in the silent era. In fact, one particular scene was such an ordeal that it still haunted the director over a decade later when he related his experience to the News Chronicle.

“…The thing I wanted above all else was to do a night scene in London, preferably on the embankment. I wanted to silhouette the mass of Charing Cross Bridge against the sky. I wanted to get away from the (at the time) inevitable shot of Piccadilly Circus with hand-painted lights.

The story demanded the dragging of a body out of the river. Here, I thought was my chance. But Scotland Yard said, ‘No.’ We pulled strings. We used influence. We went from step to step until we were within shouting distance of the Home Secretary. Scotland Yard says ‘No.’ but we were told that, if we did shoot the scene, we should not be stopped. That’s how we always used to get our permission: told usually in a hint, that authorities would turn a blind eye on us.

So we went down to the Embankment. We took two sets of light vans—that does not mean vans for light work. It means vans to carry lights. We had ‘sun arcs’—huge, powerful lights to give a real background. Otherwise, the brilliantly lit close-up shots would seem to have been photographed against black velvet. We parked the vans in the middle of the roadway on Westminster Bridge. We massed the arcs on the parapet of the bridge. We went to the Embankment and started shooting.

We took our short shots. They were fine. But I was concentrating on the long shot. Every time a tram passed we had to disconnect the cables that lay across the lines. Work below had to be held up until the lights came on again. But finally, we shot the big scene. The sun arcs turned night to day. The artists did their stuff. The bridge stood out clear and sharp. The camera turned.

The number of the scene was 45. It should have been 13. For when we went to the projection room, to see the rushes—the first prints of the day’s takings—there was no scene 45. We looked through all the reels. We looked through all the prints. We looked through positive and negative. There was no scene 45. The cameraman forgot to put his lens in the camera. That has happened more than once: call it tragedy or farce.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Arrival

The influence of German Expressionism can be seen in nearly every frame of The Lodger and would be a large part of Alfred Hitchcock’s aesthetic throughout his entire career.

Of course, the studio work went much more smoothly, and the director was very much in his element. Hitchcock’s time in Germany had a profound impact on the director’s artistic sensibilities, and The Lodger perhaps the first time expressionism becomes a major part of his aesthetic.

 “You have to remember that a year before, I was working on the UFA lot. I worked there for many months—at the same time [that] Jannings was making The Last Laugh with Murnau—and I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s actors took notice of his unusually meticulous attention to framing, sets, and lighting design as they met the challenges that this attention to detail sometimes created for them.

“‘Fresh from Berlin,’ recalled June [Tripp], ‘Hitch was so imbued with the value of unusual camera angles and lighting effects with which to create and sustain dramatic suspense that often a scene which would not run for more than three minutes on the screen would take an entire morning to shoot.’ ‘Once,’ she said, she was forced to carry ‘an iron tray of breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs’ some twenty times before Hitchcock was ‘satisfied with the expression of fear on my face and the atmosphere established by light and shadows.’” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Spending an entire morning on a scene is certainly not uncommon nowadays, but this was apparently less common in Britain during the mid-1920s. Alfred Hitchcock was a unique entity in the British film industry and went the extra mile to achieve his visual goals. This is more than obvious in the very first frames of The Lodger wherein what seems to be a simple shot of a woman screaming actually took quite a bit of creative ingenuity to achieve.

“We opened with the head of a blonde girl who is screaming. I remember the way I photographed it. I took a sheet of glass, placed the girl’s head on the glass and spread her hair around until it filled the frame. Then we lit the glass from behind so that one would be struck by her light hair. Then we cut to show an electric sign advertising a musical play, ‘Tonight, Golden Curls,’ with the reflection flickering in the water. The girl has drowned…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the director was always quick to point out that many of the film’s lauded visual flourishes were the product of the silent era. The limitations of the medium made it necessary for director’s to pictorialize sound in a clear and concise manner. A perfect example of this technique would be the celebrated invisible ceiling scene.

“In his room the man paces up and down. You must remember that we had no sound in those days, so I had a plate-glass floor made through which you could see the lodger moving back and forth, causing the chandelier in the room below to move with him. Naturally, many of these visual devices would be absolutely superfluous today because we would use sound effects instead. The sound of steps and so on… Today, I would simply use the swaying chandelier.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Hitchcock’s one inch thick plate glass ceiling was only six square feet, but this was large enough to sell the sound of the footsteps in a visual manner. This makes it clear to viewers that the chandelier is swinging because the lodger is pacing back and forth in his room. There were other examples of visualizing sound throughout the film, but the best (and certainly the most famous) of these is probably the staircase shot showing the lodger’s hand going down a handrail. Shots of the lodger leaving his room and eventually the house is alternated with shots of Mrs. Bunting listening to his movements. It is quite clear that she hears him leaving and is becoming suspicious of her new tenant.

“Just as much as the set I had built for when the lodger went out late at night—almost to the ceiling of the studio, showing four flights of stairs and a handrail. And all you see is a hand going down. That was, of course, from the point of view of the mother listening. Today, we would substitute sound for that. Although, I think that the handrail shot would be worthy of today in addition to sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

The Lodger Leaving

After six weeks of shooting, principal photography wrapped on The Lodger—but all of Hitchcock’s hard work was very nearly in vain. Unfortunately, the director had a few enemies at the studio. One of his biggest foes was his old friend and mentor, Graham Cutts (who was once considered one of the greatest directors in Britain). Hitchcock had served as his screenwriter, art director, and assistant director on a number of his films.

In fact, Hitchcock began building sets so that they could only be shot in a certain way—Hitchcock’s way. People started to notice that the success of these films owed as much to Hitchcock’s work as to his mentor’s directorial abilities—and Cutts made his dissatisfaction about these things known by firing his protégé. Some scholars suggest that Cutts also resented that Michael Balcon assigned Ivor Novello to Hitchcock’s film after having directed the actor in his star-making turn in The Rat (1925) and The Triumph of the Rat (1926). Whatever the case may be, it is enough to understand that Graham Cutts was under the influence of the green-eyed-monster and this resulted in a bitter enemy for the future master of suspense.

“After seeing an early screening of The Lodger, [Cutts] told ‘anybody who would listen that we had a disaster on our hands,’ said Michael Balcon.

Another diehard was C.M. Woolf, who still held Hitchcock partially responsible for the fiasco of The White Shadow. He had opposed Hitchcock’s promotion to director; now, paranoid that an ‘artistic’ picture could not be easily launched into the maximum number of English theaters, Woolf convened a high-level screening…” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

This screening was very nearly the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and the director would retell the terrible story in interviews for the rest of his life:

“It was first shown to the staff of the distribution company and the head of their publicity department. They saw the film and then made their report to the boss: ‘Impossible to show it. Too bad. The film is terrible.’ Two days later the big boss [C.M. Woolf] came down to the studio to look at it. He arrived at two-thirty. Mrs. Hitchcock and I couldn’t bear to wait in the studio to know the results and we walked the streets of London for an hour and a half. Finally, we took a cab and went back. We were hoping out promenade would have a happy ending and that everyone in the studio would be beaming. What they said was: ‘The boss says it’s terrible.’ And they put the film on the shelf, canceled the bookings that had been made on the basis of Novello’s reputation.

A few months later, they decided to take another look at the picture and to make some changes. I agreed to make about two. As soon as the picture was shown, it was acclaimed as the greatest British film made up to that date.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Actually, there is a bit more to the film’s resurrection than Hitchcock’s retelling would suggest. The truth is that Michael Balcon believed in both Hitchcock and the film. What’s more, the studio had quite a bit of money invested. It seemed worthwhile to give the film another chance, so the producer held another private screening—this time for an impartial party.

“Hitchcock—a shadowy figure at that time, whom I vaguely knew by name—had just finished a picture and [Michael Balcon] could not get the distributor to show it. He had taken a risk in promoting Hitch from floor assistant actually to direct. (Mick, all his life, loved recruiting fresh talent to direction, and this was not the least of his blessings to British film production.) But this was now not Hitch’s first picture for the company but his third, and the distributor would have none of any of them. The mounting unused investment was becoming impossible for Balcon to defend…

…They ran the film, with which at once I fell enthusiastically in love. Now, the hackneyed treatment of the plot and a weakness in characterization makes it look primitive. Then, by contrast with the work of his seniors and contemporaries, all Hitch’s special qualities stood out raw: the narrative skill, the ability to tell the story and create the tension in graphic combination, and the feeling for London scenes and characters.” —Ivor Montagu (Working with Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Graham Cutts
Graham Cutts was once Hitchcock’s friend and mentor, but he soon became one of his strongest adversaries: “I suspect that the director who had me fired as his assistant was still being political against me. I know he told someone, ‘I don’t know what he’s shooting. I can’t make head nor tail of it.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

The result of this showing should be obvious considering that Hitchcock is now considered one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs—but first there was quite a bit of work to do on The Lodger before it could be granted a release.

“[Montagu] was in something of a quandary, since he could hardly say that he didn’t think the film needed anything done to it. Finally, his solution was to get together with Hitch and suggest a couple of points in the film where something might be clarified by re-editing, plus some re-shooting of the final chase sequence where it was originally too dark to see details (Hitch willingly complied with this, since apart from anything else it meant an effective addition to his budget and shooting time for the film). The only radical modification Montagu suggested was to make the film more extreme in one area where Hitch had experimented cautiously. British films at this time were very heavy on titles, and British filmmakers knew little or nothing of the movement abroad in favor of telling the story as completely as possible in visual terms. Hitch had seen this done in Germany, but he knew how conservative his employers were, and so had left little to chance in verbal explanations of what was happening. Montagu told them that they should go all the way, reduce the titles to an absolute minimum and make those that were left as punchy and to the point as possible. Since he qualified as an outside expert whom they were paying good money (if not very much of it) to advise them, they took his word for it. He went ahead eliminating and tightening the titles, and brought in E. McKnight Kauffer, the painter and poster designer who was at the time considered very advanced, to design the credits and the title backgrounds.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of this additional work seems to have paid off because the film was a commercial and critical success. Nearly every critic focused largely on Hitchcock’s adept direction. An excellent example of such praise can be found in a review published in the Daily Mail.

“Here is a British film which grips the imagination… The very angles at which these scenes are photographed create terror, and the exquisite homeliness of the settings piles up apprehension. Mr. Novello has never appeared to such advantage, Miss June is natural and pretty as the heroine, and Miss Marie Ault [is] magnificent as the motherly but frightened landlady. The Lodger [is] the second fine British film this week and can more than hold its own against any foreign production. It is arresting without being in any way gruesome.” –Daily Mail (September 15, 1926)

Meanwhile, a similar review was published in the Nottingham Evening Post that very same day.

“There is further satisfactory proof of the fact that British films are on the upgrade in The Lodger… The story is adapted from the novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, and is a first-class attraction of the mystery order, with a series of sensational murders of fair-haired girls, committed by some individual who apparently does not prefer blondes

The direction of this theme by Alfred Hitchcock, a young Englishman who has little to learn from Hollywood in the technique of his craft, judging from some very original and clever devices in this picture, ensures its effectiveness. Ivor Novello gives a striking and arresting performance as the Lodger, against whom suspicion is pointed, and there is a charming heroine in the pretty musical-comedy actress popular with playgoers as ‘June.’” –Nottingham Evening Post (September 15, 1926)

The Sydney Morning Herald was especially enthusiastic about the film.

The Lodger is a film of a distinctly unusual type. When one looks back on its plot, to be sure, there seems to be nothing remarkable about it as a whole: but in the working out of the details there is much to absorb the spectator’s interest. Such originality can be easily explained, for the picture was made in England, and on this account escaped that contagion of methods and ideas which tends to standardize the output of Hollywood. The whole of the actors are English; also the director (Alfred Hitchcock). As a matter of fact, the acting throughout is very fine. Ivor Novello, who heads the cast, is every whit as handsome as the best-looking of the American leading men; and he is fortunate in having a face that photographs well from every angle. But In addition to being handsome, he has dramatic depth and fire. Some may object to his first entrance, and his actions in general during the earlier part of the play as being too theatrical, too artificial, slowed down as they are to a portentous languor; yet they form part of a deeply considered conception of the character, and fit exactly into their place in the light of subsequent revelations. For The Lodger is a mystery play. Not a thing of shrieks, and haunted houses, and grisly corpses, however. No. It is much more subtle than that. In fact, at the end the real motive for the series of murders, and the real perpetrator of them, are never revealed at all. They do not matter — they have served their purpose in the plot, and can be left freely to the imagination of the spectators to fill in at will. To presume the murderer merely a homicidal lunatic will provide an explanation as good as any. Surely this policy of vagueness is better than the plan usually followed by playwrights, of pitching on one of the characters at random and crying, ‘Behold the man!’ By methods too detailed to be explained here at length, the director has made some of the episodes remarkably gripping in their suggestion of the sinister. Indeed, for those interested in the technical side of motion picture production the whole film will repay close study. Besides Mr. Novello the cast includes Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, Malcolm Keen, and ‘June.’” -Sydney Morning Herald (February 20, 1928)

The First Hitchcock Cameo

The first Hitchcock cameo: “It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag. But now it’s a rather troublesome gag, and I’m very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is interesting to note that special mention is always made as to the film’s British origins and that the actors re discussed in a manner that betrays a public familiarity with their names. It might be easy for modern viewers to forget that these performers were both popular and well regarded at the time of the film’s release. In other words, the film was presented as a prestige project. Unfortunately, even prestige productions aren’t immune to critical condescension as this review in The Times adequately illustrates.

 “‘To-night… Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

Mr. Hitchcock has used the electric sky-sign, advertising a revue, as a symbol that appears again and again throughout his narrative. After its first appearance we see a murdered girl lying on the ground; she is the Avenger’s sixth victim and, in common with all the others, she has light hair. The news spreads. The tape-machine ticks it out; the printers print it; the newspaper vans distribute it; the chorus of Golden Curls read it in their dressing-room and the mannequins at a dressmaking establishment read it in theirs. There is, it seems, not a fair-haired woman in London that does not tremble in her decorative underclothes and go in terror of her life. Yet, though we see them tremble, we do not participate in their fear. The dark atmosphere of terror and the steady regard for character which were the making of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s book are dissipated by the sky-signs, the tape-machine, the frocks, and the absence of frocks. It is Jack-the-Ripper or the Avenger who should be brooding over London; instead it is ‘Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

And when a stranger knocks at the door of Daisy Bunting’s parents and asks for a lodging in their house; when we should all be wondering whether this dark young man, with a mysterious handbag and his face muffled in accordance with the police reports, is indeed the Avenger; when, observing that Daisy has fair hair, we should be in exquisite anxiety for her fate, there is no escaping the fact that Daisy is June Tripp and the lodger Mr. Ivor Novello, to whom, and through whom, no harm, in the films, can come. It takes the sting out of excitement. It might, indeed, have been possible to forget that June was June and Mr. Novello Mr. Novello, if Mr. Hitchcock had concentrated on any other aspect of Daisy and the lodger than their insipid charm. But that on the screen would never have done; the spirit of a good tale must perish so that the camera be not denied its close-up kisses, its soft yearnings over breakfast trays, and its whisperings through bathroom doors. The Lodger becomes, in consequence, a story, not primarily of mystery, but of the landlady’s daughter (who, of course, being a mannequin, is becomingly dressed) and the young man upstairs. Mr. Malcolm Keen, the detective, is appropriately jealous, and Mr. Arthur Chesney and Miss Marie Ault come much nearer than anyone else to preserving the novel’s genuine atmosphere. One or two of Miss Ault’s scenes, when she hears her lodger go out at night and is terrified by her suspicions, are an indication of the manner which, if the book was to be justly interpreted, should have pervaded the film. They are quiet and unforced; they have that shrewd insistence upon the truth of ordinary life and character by which Mrs. Lowndes obtained a great part of her effect. But the film has nothing else that is their equivalent. It has frittered away terror in garish irrelevance.” The Times (January 18, 1927)

Apparently, “the book was better” is an extremely old complaint about film adaptations. Frankly, this argument is nearly always short-sighted (especially when it comes to Hitchcock’s filmography). Alfred Hitchcock usually took the basic concept from a novel or short story and constructed a new screen story based upon that concept. The Lodger is an extremely accomplished calling card from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs and to concentrate on the diversions from the original novel is to miss out on a rich and rewarding cinematic achievement.

Title

PART TWO: DOWNHILL

After The Lodger found success, Alfred Hitchcock would take a short break in order to marry Alma Reville on December 02, 1926, but it wasn’t long before the director found himself tackling another project.

“When the boy wonder returned from his honeymoon in January, it wasn’t hard to convince him that, rather than stagnating, it made sense to follow The Lodger with another picture capitalizing on the rage for Ivor Novello—who, along with Constance Collier (under their pen name, David L’Estrange)—had written the hit play from which Downhill would be adapted.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day. Alfred's older brother William is stood behind him.

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day (December 02, 1926). William John Hitchcock (Alfred’s older brother) can be seen standing behind him.

Unfortunately, the original play didn’t particularly interest Hitchcock and had less to do with the adaptation than was his usual practice. His particular contribution was the visualization of the scenes that were discussed in the script meetings with Angus MacPhail and Eliot Stannard (who remained relatively faithful to the original play). Luckily, the director tackled the direction of the film with the same creative fervency that distinguished his work on The Lodger. In fact, the director betrayed a genuine affection for a few of the ideas in the film during his interview with François Truffaut (even as he insisted that they werenaïve touches”).

“I experimented a bit. I showed a woman seducing a younger man, She is a lady of a certain age, but quite elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak. Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face. In that moment she looks dreadful. And through the open window, we show people passing by carrying a coffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Descending

Shots of Roddy descending became a motif in the film. The above three screen captures illustrate three examples as the protagonist descends the stairs, the escalator, and the elevator.

Another touch that Hitchcock insisted wouldn’t work today is a motif throughout the film where Novello’s character is shown descending. The most famous of these shots involves an escalator heading into the Underground. “That’s when the boy is thrown out of the house by his father,” the director remembered later. “To show the beginning of his downhill journey, I put him on an escalator going down.” Apparently, this scene was shot on location after midnight so as not to disrupt the commuters.

“For more than three hours a British film company took possession of the Maida Vale tube station [in] London recently for a special scene in the Piccadilly Picture, Ltd.’s production of Downhill, directed by that most promising of the new school of English producers, Mr. Alfred J. Hitchcock. Late travelers arriving at the station were puzzled by the huge sunlight arc lamps installed along the escalator and vestibule until the familiar face of Mr. Ivor Novello—in yellow grease paint and a camera on trestles—explained the situation. In the street were loudly purring generators on lorries… Scenes were made by Mr. Novello entering the station and booking a ticket, but the real interest lay in a wonderful ‘shot’ on the moving escalator—the first of its kind made in England. The bore of the escalator gave some surprising lighting effects, and Mr. Hitchcock is making the ‘slow’ descent of the character something half symbolic…” –The Canberra Times (Film Making in a Tube, May 06, 1927)

Interestingly, Hitchcock directed the scene in an eloquent formal suit complete with white tie and top hat because he had gone to the theatre earlier that night! By most accounts, principal photography was otherwise uneventful, but there was one particularly unfortunate disagreement that led to the temporary loss of one of his most important colleagues.

 “Hitch had a quarrel over a rather strange matter of principal with Ivor Montagu, who had helped him change the apparent disaster of The Lodger into a triumph and was now working on the scripting and editing of Downhill. Montagu, as befitted a young intellectual invader of the cinema, had all sorts of principles about what could and couldn’t, or should and shouldn’t be done in films. He objected particularly to shots which seemed to contain a built-in impossibility or to be cheating in some way. He himself admits to a measure of inconsistency… but a shot Hitch was determined to include in Downhill stuck in Montagu’s gullet. It was a scene in a taxi with the knees of the hero, his new love, and her old protector all touching in a rather equivocal manner, photographed from directly above. Montagu complained that the shot was an impossible viewpoint—not even a fly on the ceiling of the taxi could see things that way unless the taxi was ten feet tall. Hitch, characteristically, didn’t care: the shot showed what he wanted it to show, and that was that. Montagu was irritated at his inability to put over his point, and though he remained quite friendly with Hitch he departed after preliminary work on Easy Virtue, and he and Hitch did not work together again until seven years later when fate and Michael Balcon reunited them on the first Man Who Knew Too Much.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor’s mention of Montagu’s preliminary work on Easy Virtue brings up an interesting point. Alfred Hitchcock was actually working on that film throughout a good portion of Downhill’s production and the shooting of these two films overlapped a bit.

 “When the rest of Downhill was completed they still had a couple of necessary close-up shots left to do of [Ivor] Novello staggering through the east End of London on his return to England. Hitch had already begun work on his next film, Easy Virtue, and was on location on the Riviera. Novello came down very grandly, checked into the Hotel de Paris in Nice for one night, gave a lot of interviews there in his suite, and then, having got that out of the way, vanished to a very humble pension for the rest of his time on location. The shots were done on the flat roof of the pension, with a couple of men holding a painted backdrop of the London docks while Novello walked on the spot in front of it in the bright Mediterranean sunlight and the natives looked on incredulously, speculating as to what on earth these crazy Englishmen could be doing.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Once the film was finished and then released (in relatively rapid succession), it seems to have received some modest critical and commercial success with the overall critical opinion being extremely mixed. As a matter of fact, Iris Barry captured the overall critical response to the film in a single sentence when she wrote that Hitchcock “made a clever picture out of poor and indeed unsuitable and undramatic material.” Nearly every review reiterated these same sentiments. Alfred Hitchcock’s direction was always met with praise even as the scenario was torn to shreds as in this review published by the Yorkshire Post:

Downhill is the latest Ivor Novello picture, directed by Alfred Hitchcock… Mr. Novello has already had success in the stage play of the same name from which the film is taken, and I have no doubt that he will succeed in the film, for Mr. Hitchcock is remarkably skillful at combining clever photography with sound ‘entertainment value.’ But this story of an innocent school boy’s road to ruin is childish nonsense. We are asked to believe that the head master of a public school accepts without question the unsupported word of an obvious little minx from a tea shop, accusing his head prefect of having seduced her. Without inquiry the head master insinuates to Roddie that he must instantly pack his bags. Roddie arrives in London, where his father, not to be outdone by the head master, violently disowns him. The door slams mid we see Roddie starting down a tube escalator—symbolism—on the downward career that is to take him through chorus work to sudden wealth, to marriage with an expensive actress, poverty, cabaret dancing, and so at last happily home again.

Mr. Novello acts very competently throughout the picture, and Miss Annette Benson, as the minx who gets him expelled, displays the greatest promise. She will soon be well known. The direction and photography are consistently vivid, ingenious, and effective, but it is pretty plain that Mr. Hitchcock does not take this sort of stuff seriously. I am glad to see that he is now to direct a story of his own, called The Ring, for British International…” –Yorkshire Post (May 31, 1927)

A review published in The Guardian was just as critical and perhaps even more pointed than similar reviews that were being written at the time.

The Lodger was the best film made in England up to the end of last year. It had power, point, imagination, and an entirely new angle—new, that is to say, in an English studio of visual expression. Downhill carries out every promise of its predecessor without being at all a good film. It is interesting. It is shrewd. It is brilliant to the point of the camera. But the danger of a man possessing an individual and startling style is that he is apt not to be particular about the occasions on which he uses it. The material of The Lodger was slight and sensational, but the material of Downhill is down-right bad… I have never seen such an interesting production of rubbish nor [such] a clever film which deserved quite so little praise…

When Hitchcock sets to work on real film material… there will not be more than half a dozen producers in the world who will be able to beat him. There are none in England now.” -C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Critics rightly chastised the British Film Industry for their backwards attempts at improving their productions by focusing on the technical qualities rather than seeking out mature dramatic material and claimed that “no policy could be worse for the British film industry than an attempt to out-do Hollywood in mechanism to the neglect of human dramatic quality. To out-do Hollywood in technique is extremely difficult and not necessarily worth doing. To out-do Hollywood in dramatic value is immensely worth doing, and should be singularly easy.

A review published in The Times followed suit, but the most interesting aspect of their review is the mention of a short interlude that allowed Ivor Novello to perform a scene in person!

Downhill… shows more than anything else, the extraordinary way in which British film technique has advanced during the last few years. Many people will remember the play on which the film is based… This threadbare story has been taken over by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock… and by sheer technique, he has managed to breathe some life into it. He has not made it credible—that would be expecting too much—but he has at least made it seem far less ridiculous than one could possibly have expected.

The thesis is such an inverted one that it is difficult to know how he could have done better… That Mr. Hitchcock, with the improbable material to his hand, has succeeded so well is an achievement… Mr. Ivor Novello is excellent as himself, but he is never so much like a schoolboy as when he appears in person in an interpolated scene. This scene, on Monday night, seemed to interest the audience, but the advisability of mingling the two forms of entertainment seems very doubtful…” -The Times (October 12, 1927)

Not everyone disliked the film’s premise. A review in the Dundee Evening Telegraph betrays a genuine affection for Hitchcock’s direction and the scenario alike (even if they do describe it as being an “old theme”).

 “In the list of British films released last year which really can be classified as good the name of Alfred Hitchcock appears as producer opposite two…

…Hitchcock has taken a very old theme and dished it up anew, like cold mutton which is much more appetizing in rissoles form. He has given us the prodigal son in a new garb, and the hero shines more gloriously than the original, because his fall was due to his kindness of heart when he screened a fellow-student.

Thus the climax, when he returns broken and weary to his father’s house and all the things that can be summed up as ‘fatted calf,’ is just what is expected, but in various ways the picture has been cleverly thought out along fresh lines.

Several well-known British stars of the legitimate stage — Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, Norman McKinnell, Lilian Braithwaite, and Violet Fairbrother — are the featured players, the whole cast combining to give an impression of careful and clever direction.” -Dundee Evening Telegraph (January 10, 1928)

Modern scholars tend to agree with the majority of these old reviews and praise the director’s experimentation even as they condemn the plot—which is extremely dated and not particularly interesting. However, the film itself is a genuinely enjoyable experience and later scholarly assessments have been nothing if not grudgingly commendatory. An excellent example would be a mostly flattering paragraph published in Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.

“Technically, the picture is superior to just about anything that was made in England that year: there are perfectly matched dissolves to relate characters and themes; a fine dream sequence; and astonishingly stable follow shots with a hand-held camera along the docks of Marseilles. The sets, to be frank, are more convincing than some of the acting.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor was even more admiring in his 1978 biography about the director.

“It is not, one would gather, among the films Hitch feels particularly proud of nowadays… But seen today, Downhill comes over as one of his liveliest and most joyously inventive silent films—possibly a lack of any great sympathy with the material (‘a poor play,’ Hitch says) made it easier to regard the film as an exercise in technique… And at the time Downhill was made, absolutely no one else in the British cinema was working with this kind of cinematic imagination, telling a story with this mind-grabbing command of the medium’s possibilities—which, one senses, Hitch was incapable of not doing, even with a subject not at all to his taste.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor captures the thoughts and feelings of this reviewer quite admirably. Downhill isn’t one of his better films, but it does give the Hitchcock fan an opportunity to watch a raw cinematic talent as he is discovering his voice.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Criterion is known for their brilliant tailor-made cover designs and Geoff Grandfield has designed a cover for The Lodger that mirrors the style of poster art used the silent era.

As is their habit, Criterion also includes an attractive fold-out pamphlet that features two interesting essays by Philip Kemp. The first of these is titled “The First True Hitchcock Movie” and focuses its attention on The Lodger. The second essay focuses on Downhill and is titled, “Playing for the Old Boys.” Both essays are worth reading as they should add to the viewer’s appreciation of both films despite the unfortunate fact that Kemp seems to be a blind devotee from the Spoto school of Hitchcock scholarship (if you can call it “scholarship”).

Menu

The disc’s menu utilizes a still image of the film’s title art, which actually works quite beautifully. This artwork is coupled with Neil Brand’s new score for the film, and the result is elegant in its simplicity.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

As is Criterion’s usual practice, they provide information about their restoration work in the included pamphlet:

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from the 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. A 35mm duplicate negative was scanned in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner at Deluxe 142 in London, where restoration also took place. The tint and tones of the original nitrate print have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation, along with Simon W. Hessel…” –Liner Notes

The restoration was originally released by Network in the United Kingdom, but Criterion’s release is its North American debut. This is a very different restoration than the one included on MGM’s 2009 DVD release of the film as is indicated by the shorter duration and the fact that this particular transfer showcases less (and very different) tinting. This makes one wonder about the reason (or reasons) behind these differences. Was the film tinted differently in different territories? Was the MGM release artificially tinted by the restoration team? So many questions come to mind.

Luckily, this transfer is the superior of the two and North American Hitchcock fans now have reason to celebrate! When one considers the film’s age, this transfer seems almost like a minor miracle. The image exhibits a surprising level of detail, and the grain pattern appears natural and well resolved throughout the duration of the film. Depth is strong for such an old feature, and contrast is about as good as anyone should expect considering the film’s origins. The restoration team has eliminated most signs of aging, although a few small and insignificant blemishes such as scratches, debris, damage marks, and lines do occasionally appear. Compression never becomes problematic either.

Our only small criticism concerns Criterion’s choice of putting both The Lodger and Downhill on the same disc. This particular release probably warrants a 2-disc treatment. Each film could have probably benefited from the maximized bitrate that this would have allowed—although The Lodger is reasonably well represented at 29.36 Mbps.

Criterion also includes information about their transfer for Downhill:

 “Downhill is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. 35mm nitrate print reels were scanned in 2K resolution on an Oxberry wetgate film scanner at Haghefilm Digital in Amsterdam. Digital restoration of the picture and intertitles took place at Deluxe142 in London. The tints and tones of the original nitrate prints have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by Simon W. Hessel” –Liner Notes

The result is an extremely solid image transfer (even at the relatively low bitrate of 15.09 Mbps) of the film. It seems every bit as strong as The Lodger and some aspects of the image might very well be marginally superior. Depth, for example, is extremely solid and detail often impresses the realistic viewer. Density can occasionally be less than perfect, but one suspects that this is due to the irreversible ravages of time. Like their restoration of The Lodger, the team has cleaned the image of distracting anomalies and only the occasional scratch and speck of dust remains here. This is an extremely satisfying image transfer.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Since original sound elements for silent films are usually nonexistent (as is the case with both The Lodger and Downhill), it has become the common practice to have new music written especially for these films. Whatever opinions one might have about this practice, it is admittedly the better of the two options available under the circumstances (the other being to simply release it without any sound track). This option at least allows the viewer a choice in the matter as one can simply mute their television sets if they don’t want outside sources to influence their viewing experience.

Criterion includes information about the included score for both films in their liner notes:

“Neil Brand’s score for The Lodger is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and the Orchestra of Saint Paul’s and conducted by Ben Palmer, with score preparation by Thomas Hewitt Jones. The performance was recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by producer Brand and engineer George Murphy…

…[His] piano score for Downhill is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by engineer George Murphy.” –Liner Notes

The score for The Lodger is presented in a 2.0 Linear PCM audio transfer and is the more robust of the two tracks (and the only one presented in an uncompressed format. Since it is an orchestral score, the lossless environment gives the music more room to breathe and sounds fantastic.

Downhill is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital and is therefore compressed, but it still sounds great. It is a simple piano score and requires less room to breathe than his orchestral score for The Lodger. This is another area that might have benefited from a two-disc Blu-ray release, but one shouldn’t be as critical about the standard definition soundtrack for this film as they might be if this were a talking picture with original sound design. After all, these scores are in all actuality third-party supplemental features that have nothing to do with the original film.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Downhill (1927)

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A 2K digital restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 follow-up to The Lodger is included on the disc as one of the film’s “special features,” and it adds an inordinate amount of value to the disk.

In addition to this bonus feature, Criterion includes over 2 hours and 51 minutes of additional video and audio based material that should fascinate fans of Alfred Hitchcock.

William Rothman: Hitchcock’s Visual Signatures – (32:54)

William Rothman discusses the visual signatures in The Lodger and how they can be found in many of the director’s later films. Scenes are dissected and analyzed in a scholarly manner, and even those who disagree with some of Rothman’s rhetoric will find something here to enhance their appreciation of the master’s work.

Interestingly, it seems that Rothman subscribes to the opinion that it is indeed Alfred Hitchcock who is seen in the angry mob at the film’s climax. This is certainly questionable and this fact calls some of his interpretations of this particular scene into question (which is unfortunate).

The Bunting House: Space and Structure in ‘The Lodger’(17:42)

Steven Jacobs (author of The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock) offers a rather comprehensive examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s use of architecture in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog and offers comparisons to some of the master’s later work. The German influence is discussed and a diagram of the bunting home is even offered as Jacobs discusses the dream-like inconsistencies some of the film’s geography. It probably won’t appeal to all viewers as Steven Jacobs speaks with a rather unusual and distracting accent that only exacerbates what might be seen as an overly dry and academic tone. However, those who enjoy theoretical analysis will no doubt find their appreciation of the film enhanced.

François Truffaut Interviews Alfred Hitchcock – (26:23)

Interview1

Those who have been collecting Hitchcock films on Blu-ray will know exactly what to expect from this excellent excerpt from François Truffaut’s legendary book length interview with the master of suspense. This portion of the interview predictably concentrates on The Lodger, and it is an extremely interesting discussion that betrays Hitchcock’s genuine affection for the film.

Criterion presents the interview over a sepia-tinted silent film styled title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.” This allows Criterion to utilize less disc space, but these interviews often play better when they are illustrated with photos and film footage. However, this is merely a small complaint. The important thing is that they have included what has become an essential part of any Hitchcock release.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock

Interview2

Criterion includes excerpts from two separate interviews and presents them over blue-tinted silent film styled title cards that say “Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchcock.” This is essentially the same style of presentation given to the Truffaut interview. Each interview is presented over a blue-tinted title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.”

It is surprising to discover that these two interviews are more comprehensive discussions about Alfred Hitchcock’s early life and career. In fact, there is very little overlap with Truffaut’s interview. Frankly, the information discussed in these interviews is richer and more revealing than the excerpt from Truffaut’s interview with the director (and the opposite is usually true).

1963 Interview(19:42)

1972 Interview(20:58)

Radio Adaptation of The Lodger (1940) – (30:48)

Alfred Hitchcock directs this radio adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger for the July 22, 1940 pilot episode of Suspense—which would become a CBS Radio series. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent was set for release and the radio program would serve as a promotion for the film (which explains the presence of Herbert Marshall as Mr. Sleuth and Edmund Gwenn as Robert Bunting). Interestingly, Gwen was cast in the same role given to his brother, Arthur Chesney, in Hitchcock’s original film version.

It is an interesting radio drama and has the added interest of being directed by Hitchcock himself (who rarely worked in radio). It adds an enormous amount of value to the disc.

Neil Brand: Scoring Hitchcock’s The Lodger(22:37)

The least interesting addition to the disc is this rather comprehensive interview with Neil Brand about the new score that he provided for The Lodger. Since this discussion is less about the film itself and more about Brand’s thought process while composing a new score for silent films, it is bound to disappoint those who are essentially looking for information or analysis about Hitchcock’s breakthrough film. However, anyone interested in a detailed account of the work that went into Brand’s score will no doubt be impressed.

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Final Words:

The Lodger is Alfred Hitchcock’s best and most important silent film and Criterion’s release contains a strong transfer, instructive supplemental material, and Downhill (the director’s follow-up feature). This is an incredible release that has been a long time coming! We hope that cinephiles can expect Criterion releases of some of the master’s other British thrillers in the near future.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Staff Writer (Another Fine British Film: A Murder Novel Screened, Daily Mail, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (New British Film: Ivor Novello in ‘The Lodger,’ Nottingham Evening Post, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (The Times, January 18, 1927)

Iris Barry (Downhill: A Clever British Film, Daily Mail, May 25, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World: New German and British Pictures, Yorkshire Post, May 31, 1927)

C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, June 14, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Times, October 12, 1927)

Staff Writer (Downhill at the Elite Theatre, Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, October 22, 1927)

Staff Writer (Around Dundee Cinemas, Dundee Evening Telegraph, January 10, 1928)

Staff Writer (Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 1928)

Staff Writer (Ivor Novello Superb, Australian River Record, August 17, 1928)

Staff Writer (Empire Theatre: Downhill, Queensland Morning Bulletin, October 23, 1928)

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

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 1977)

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

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

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

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Thomas Leitch (Hitchcock from Stage to Page, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

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

Blu-ray Review: Lifeboat

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: March 21, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:36:58

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.39:1

Bitrate: 24.91 Mbps

Notes: A DVD edition of this title was previously released by 20th Century Fox in North America, but this marks the film’s Blu-ray debut in this region.

Title

“…It was a challenge, but it was also because I wanted to prove a theory I had then. Analyzing the psychological pictures that were being turned out, it seemed to me that, visually, eighty percent of the footage was shot in close-ups or semi-close shots. Most likely it wasn’t a conscious thing with most of the di­rectors, but rather an instinctive need to come closer to the action. In a sense, this treatment was an anticipation of what was to become the television technique.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While there is certainly an abundance of close-ups and medium shots in Lifeboat, Hitchcock still manages to pull off a diverse and creative mise-en-scène throughout its duration. In fact, Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most creatively successful cinematic experiments. Unfortunately, the film is usually treated with a certain amount of apathy by scholars and critics.

It is too easy to simply write the film off as an anomaly in the director’s career and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s droll reaction to Tallulah Bankhead’s unfortunate habit of not wearing any underwear: “I’m not sure if this is a matter for wardrobe or hairdressing” or his reaction to Mary Anderson when she asked which was her better side: “You’re sitting on it, my dear.” In fact, most writings on the film focus on such anecdotes (and no two versions of either of these stories are consistent). Very little attention is paid to the film itself or to the rich viewing experience that it provides to willing audiences.

Perhaps this is because the film isn’t usually evaluated in the same manner as most Hitchcock pictures. There are those who see this as an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novella, and this particular approach is both misguided and misleading. John Steinbeck wasn’t even responsible for the film’s premise—despite what the author’s widow has claimed in the past. Hitchcock himself originated the idea of making a movie about a cross-section of American society adrift on a Lifeboat and had originally approached Ernest Hemingway to write a treatment. John Steinbeck was only contacted after Hemingway turned the project down. He agreed to write a treatment in novella form if he would be allowed to publish the novella after the film’s release. The treatment was never completed nor was it ever published—though a ghostwriter did rework the treatment for magazine publication in order to help promote the film’s release.

“I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give a dramatic form to each of the se­quences.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

These facts should alter one’s reading of the film as an adaptation because it was actually an original screenplay that was developed in much the same manner that other original scripts were developed. However, this none of these facts are intended to discount Steinbeck’s contribution to the project. The resulting film is one of the Hitchcock’s most political and it makes a number of interesting social observations and statements.

20th Century Fox understood this and saw it as an important “prestige” film, and Darryl F. Zanuck, therefore, wanted to make contributions to the picture. This resulted in memorandum that pressured the director to make cuts and to add music. In the end, only minor cuts were made and music was only added to the beginning and ending of the film. It is believed that Zanuck’s desire for Hitchcock to direct another movie for the studio resulted in his giving the director more creative freedom than he would have usually allowed. In any case, Zanuck was pleased with the final result.

Hitchcock Cameo - Publicity Photo

This is a publicity still featuring Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat.

Hitchcock Cameo

This is a screenshot of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat. “That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up. Usually, I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean. I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink. I couldn’t play one of the nine survivors since each had to be played by a competent performer. Finally, I hit on a good idea. At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds. So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. These photographs were used in a news¬ paper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them—and me—when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat. The role was a great hit. I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how they could get Reduco.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

In fact, everyone involved expected the film to be an enormous success and reviews were initially positive, but Bosley Crowther’s second review altered the film’s critical reception from that point forward. Dorothy Thompson—the template for Bankhead’s characterization of Constance Porter—famously gave the film ten days to get out of town.

“One of the things that drew the fire of the American critics is that I had shown a German as being superior to the other char­acters. But at that time, 1940-41, the French had been defeated, and the allies were not doing too well. Moreover, the German, who at first claimed to be a simple sailor, was actually a submarine commander; therefore there was every reason for his being better qualified than the others to take over the command of the life­ boat. But the critics apparently felt that a nasty Nazi couldn’t be a good sailor. Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit else­where, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics often complained that Hitchcock never made political or socially relevant films—but when he made this kind of film, they usually lashed out at the director. The reason for this is simple. Most so-called “relevant” films were in all actuality propaganda, and propaganda is never completely honest. Audiences must be pandered to in order for propaganda to be successful: “Americans are strong, righteous, and courageous. What’s more, we have right on our side…” Hitchcock doesn’t pander. He holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and darker impulses—and he does this in Lifeboat. His pictures are more relevant than most of the films that critics praised. Lifeboat was a warning about the complacent self-interest and petty philosophical differences that divide us or weaken our resolve, and this is why the film is still relevant.

“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the com­mon enemy, whose strength was precisely de­rived from a spirit of unity and of determination.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics and journalists weren’t the only ones complaining. John Steinbeck disliked the film and tried in vain to have his name removed from both film and its publicity.

“New York January 10, 1944 Dear Sirs, I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary, there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro, there was a Negro of dignity, purpose, and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.” -John Steinbeck (Letter to 20th Century Fox, January 10, 1944)

It is more than a little obvious that the author’s dissatisfaction with the film was entirely due to the many changes made to his unfinished treatment, and it should be said that his comments about Canada Lee’s portrayal of Joe Spencer are enormously unfair. He may well be the most dignified character on the boat—and he certainly couldn’t be labeled “a stock comedy Negro.” It is lamentable that the film suggests that Joe is a reformed pickpocket, but this is certainly overshadowed by Canada Lee’s dignified portrayal and the fact that he is the film’s moral anchor. In any case, Steinbeck’s request was ignored. The studio had agreed to the writer’s salary in part because they could exploit his name in the film’s publicity materials and they weren’t about to give that up.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the Blu-ray disc in the standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that makes use of two different vintage one-sheet designs. The first side makes use of the original American one-sheet while the second side showcases the 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork. Both choices are better than the average home video artwork.

Blu-ray Cover (B).jpg

There is also a small Kino Lorber catalog included that features box art for many of their other releases.

Menu

The disc’s static menu also utilizes the hand-painted 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork and this works quite beautifully. Music from the film’s opening credit sequence can be heard underneath this image.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber’s release of the film is a solid one that showcases more information on the left and right edges of the frame than the original DVD edition of the film. The image is remarkably film-live without appearing too grainy and this allows fine detail to shine through without any annoying issues. The film has never looked this sharp. The black levels are deep and accurate and contrast seems to accurately represent the film. There are a few scratches and some dirt can be seen on occasion but these never become problematic.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s mono DTS-HD Master Audio track seem to reproduce the film’s original audio without any issues. Problems like hiss, hum, pops, and crackle isn’t evident. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the atmospheric effects are given enough room to breathe. The music heard in the film credits seems a bit boxed in but this is the result of the original recording methods and not the transfer.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas is a critic for Video Watchdog and doesn’t seem to have any real authoritative knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock’s work. He does supply a wealth of knowledge and his analysis of the film is enjoyable, intriguing, and reasonably astute. However, the revelations provided are marred by a number of inaccuracies. For example, John Steinbeck was not responsible for the film’s premise as he was commissioned by Hitchcock to write the Lifeboat treatment in novella form. What’s more, Joe Spencer doesn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. He recites the 23rs Psalm. These are only two of a number of inaccuracies. Having said this, this commentary is worth one’s time for some of the theoretical analysis provided.

Audio Commentary by Film Professor Drew Casper

Drew Casper is a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and teaches courses on Alfred Hitchcock. His commentary is more languidly paced than the Tim Lucas commentary and there are more moments of silence. Much of the same information is offered here, and some of Casper’s authoritative statements are simply conjecture. However, the information that he offers is both interesting and worthwhile. What’s more, it is clear that he does have an abundance of knowledge about the director and his work while Tim Lucas seems to have retrieved most of his information from a simple Google search.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: Theater of War – (20:00)

Peter Ventrella’s retrospective “making-of” documentary isn’t as comprehensive as some of those made by Laurent Bouzereau during the early days of DVD, but it does offer much more background information than those he made about Alfred Hitchcock’s Warner Brothers films. Unfortunately, none of the film’s participants were on hand to discuss the film, but Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter), Mary Stone (Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter), Drew Casper (Hitchcock scholar), and Robert DeMott (Steinbeck scholar) appear during the program to provide some general background information and a few stories from the set. Viewers who are well versed in Hitchcock history might not find much new information here, but the vast majority of the population should learn quite a bit. It’s really a great addition to the disc!

Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview – (11:54)

It’s very pleasing to find that audio from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews is being added to the supplemental packages for Hitchcock’s films. These excerpts find Hitchcock discussing Lifeboat and his memories and thoughts are illustrated by still photos, posters, lobby cards, and footage from the film.

Lifeboat Blu-ray Promo – (01:27)

One wishes that Kino Lorber had included the film’s original theatrical trailer instead of this advertisement for this Blu-ray release. This really doesn’t add anything to the package and those who have already bought the disc don’t really need to be sold.

Additional Trailers

Interestingly, three theatrical trailers for other Kino Lorber releases are provided on the disc:

Compulsion Theatrical Trailer – (01:01)

Five Miles to Midnight Theatrical Trailer – (03:19)

23 Paces to Baker Street Theatrical Trailer – (02:15)

None of these are relevant to Lifeboat unless one considers that Anthony Perkins (Psycho) stars in Five Miles to Midnight, Vera Miles (The Wrong Man, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) appears in 23 Paces to Baker Street, and Compulsion—like Rope is based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murders (although Rope is based on a play that is loosely inspired by the murders while Compulsion is a direct adaptation of those events).

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Final Words:

Kino Lorber’s solid transfer and a nice supplemental package make this an easy recommendation for Hitchcock enthusiasts and admirers of classic cinema!

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Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

blu-ray-cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 20, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 80 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: 2.0 English Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish

Ratio: 1.78:1

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

Cannes One Sheet

Cannes Film Festival’s One Sheet

“It’s a film that I was very excited about making because it’s a book that has meant a great deal to me for – I mean I’m fifty-five – so for the last forty-three years of my life. Hitchcock’s work, and Truffaut’s work to a certain extent as well – but Hitchcock’s work has for me a deeper connection because I started looking at his films right around the same time as I read the book, and I’ve been re-watching them over and over since then. I’ve never even started to count how many times I’ve seen Vertigo or Rear Window or Psycho or Saboteur or I Confess – and so, in that sense as well, it was something that was exciting for me. Then there was the idea of making a movie that really looked at the question of filmmaking, at a moment when the idea of filmmaking is a little bit debased – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – and looked at it in new and surprising ways. So those were all the things that were in my mind.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

An understanding and appreciation of the importance of Truffaut’s landmark text can be felt throughout Jones’ remarkably engaging documentary. It is reasonable for cinephiles to temper their excitement about such a film with certain misgivings. Is it possible that the documentary might overshadow or replace the essential book that inspired it, or will it inspire further interest and appreciation for the text? We are more than a little pleased to report that the latter is the case.

François Truffaut would be quite happy to know that his book is still influencing the landscape of cinema and that it remains the single point from which all other Hitchcock scholarship revolves. After all, it was his intention to change the critical and public perception of Hitchcock as a mere entertainer or expert technician.

 “Nowadays the work of Alfred Hitchcock is admired all over the world. Young people who are just discovering his art through the current re-release of Rear Window and Vertigo, or through North by Northwest, may assume his prestige has always been recognized, but this is far from being the case…

…His fame had spread further throughout the world via the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the mid-fifties. But American and European critics made him pay for his commercial success by reviewing his work with condescension, and by belittling each new film…

From my past career as a critic, in common with all the young writers from Cahiers du Cinéma, I still felt the imperative need to convince. It was obvious that Hitchcock, whose genius for publicity was equaled only by that of Salvador Dalí, had in the long run been victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers and his deliberate practice of deriding their questions. In examining his films, it was obvious that he had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues. It occurred to me that if he would, for the first time, agree to respond seriously to a systematic questionnaire, the resulting document might modify the American critics’ approach to Hitchcock.

That is what this book is all about… I dare say that this book achieved this result. At the time it was published, however, a young American film professor predicted: ‘This book will do more harm to your reputation in America than your worst film.’ As it happens, Charles Thomas Samuels was mistaken. He committed suicide a year or two later, undoubtedly for other reasons. In fact, from 1968 on, American critics began to take Hitchcock’s work more seriously. Today, a movie like Psycho is regarded as a classic, and young film buffs have adopted Hitchcock wholeheartedly, without begrudging him his success, wealth, and fame.”François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

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Of course, things might be quite different today had Hitchcock not agreed to participate. It probably helped that Truffaut was a celebrated filmmaker himself at this point. This was not the case when François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock first met one another.

“That happened in 1955, when Alfred Hitchcock, having completed the location shooting of To Catch a Thief on the Côte d’Azur, came to the Saint-Maurice studios, in Joinville, for the post-synchronization of the picture. My friend Claude Chabrol and I decided to go there and interview him for Cahiers du Cinéma. Armed with a long list of intricate questions and a borrowed tape recorder, we sallied forth in high spirits.

In Joinville, we were directed to a pitch-black auditorium, where a loop showing Cary Grant and Brigitte Auber in a motorboat was being run continuously on the screen. In the darkness, we introduced ourselves to Hitchcock who courteously asked us to wait for him at the studio bar across the courtyard.

Both movie-crazy, thrilled by our brief preview of Hitchcock’s latest work, we emerged into the blinding glare of daylight, literally bursting with excitement. In the heat of our discussion, we failed to notice the dark-grey frozen pond in the middle of the courtyard. With a single step forward, we went over the ledge, landing on a thin layer of ice, which immediately gave way. Within seconds we were immersed in a pool of freezing water and a state of shock. In a hollow voice, I asked Chabrol ‘What about the tape recorder?’ He replied by slowly raising his left arm to hold the case in mid-air with the water bleakly oozing out from all sides like a stream of tears.

Staggering around the sloping basin, unable to reach the edge without sliding right back to the center, we were trapped in a situation straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Eventually, with the helping hand of a charitable bystander, we managed to reach firm ground. A wardrobe mistress who was passing by invited us to follow her to a dressing room where we might take off our clothes and dry out. When we attempted to thank her for her kindness, she said in a businesslike way, ‘What a way to make a living. Are you extras for Rififi?’ Upon learning that we were reporters, she lost all interest and told us to clear out.

A few minutes later, still soaking wet and shivering with cold, we made our way to the bar, where Hitchcock awaited us. He merely looked us over, and without a single comment on our appearance amiably suggested another appointment for that evening at the Hotel Plaza Athénée. A year later, upon spotting us at one of his Paris press conferences, Hitchcock finally acknowledged the incident by saying, ‘Gentlemen, every time I see a pair of ice cubes clicking together in a glass of whiskey, I think of you two.’

We subsequently learned that Hitchcock had embellished the incident with a twist of his own. According to the Hitchcock version, Chabrol was dressed as a priest and I was wearing a gendarme’s uniform when we turned up for the interview.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

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Had Truffaut requested that Hitchcock participate in a career spanning interview in 1955, it is quite likely that the portly genius would have politely declined the request. However, a decade can make quite a difference. When the French auteur sat down to write Hitchcock a letter in the summer of 1962, he wasn’t a journalist or a film critic. He was an admiring fellow-filmmaker.

“Dear Mr. Hitchcock,

First of all, allow me to remind you who I am. A few years ago, in late 1954, when I was a film journalist, I came with my friend Claude Chabrol to interview you at the Saint-Maurice studio where you were directing the post-synchronization of To Catch a Thief. You asked us to go and wait for you in the studio bar, and it was then that, in the excitement of having watched fifteen times in succession a ‘loop’ showing Brigitte Auber and Cary Grant in a speedboat, Chabrol and I fell into the frozen tank in the studio courtyard. You very kindly agreed to postpone the interview which was conducted that same evening at your hotel.

Subsequently, each time you visited Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting you with Odette Ferry, and for the following year you even said to me, ‘Whenever I see ice cubes in a glass of whiskey I think of you.’ One year after that, you invited me to come to New York for a few days and watch the shooting of The Wrong Man, but I had to decline the invitation since, a few months after Claude Chabrol, I turned to film-making myself.

I have made three films, the first of which, The 400 Blows, had, I believe, a certain success in Hollywood. The latest, Jules et Jim, is currently showing in New York. I come now to the point of my letter. In the course of my discussions with foreign journalists and especially in New York, I have come to realize that their conception of your work is often very superficial. Moreover, the kind of propaganda that we were responsible for in Cahiers du Cinéma was excellent as far as France was concerned, but inappropriate for America because it was too intellectual.

Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love for the cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself and it is that which I would like to talk to you about.

I would like you to grant me a tape-recorded interview which would take about eight days to conduct and would add up to about thirty hours of recordings. The point of this would be to distil not a series of articles but an entire book which would be published simultaneously in New York (I would consider offering it, for example, to Simon and Schuster where I have some friends) and Paris (by Gallimard or Robert Laffont), then, probably later, more or less everywhere in the world.

If the idea were to appeal to you, and you agreed to do it, here is how I think we might proceed: I could come and stay for about ten days wherever it would be most convenient for you. From New York I would bring with me Miss Helen Scott who would be the ideal interpreter; she carries out simultaneous translations at such speed that we would have the impression of speaking to one another without any intermediary and, working as she does at the French Film Office in New York, she is also completely familiar with the vocabulary of the cinema. She and I would take rooms in the hotel closest to your home or to whichever office you might arrange.

Here is the work schedule. Just a very detailed interview in chronological order. To start with, some biographical notes, then the first jobs you had before entering the film industry, then your stay in Berlin.

This would be followed by:

1. The British silent films;

2. the British sound films;

3. the first American films for Selznick and the spy films;

4. the two Transatlantic Pictures;

5. the Vistavision period;

6. from The Wrong Man to The Birds.

The questions would focus more precisely on:

a) The circumstances surrounding the inception of each film;

b) the development and construction of the screenplay;

c) the stylistic problems peculiar to each film;

d) the situation of the film in relation to those preceding it;

e) your own assessment of the artistic and commercial result in relation to your intentions.

There would be questions of a more general nature on good and bad scripts, different styles of dialogue, the direction of actors, the art of editing, [and] the development of new techniques, special effects, and color. These would be interspaced among the different categories in order to prevent any interruption in chronology.

The body of work would be preceded by a text which I would write myself and which might be summarized as follows: if overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and became once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.

If this project interests you, I would ask you to let me know how you would like to proceed. I imagine that you are in the process of editing The Birds, and perhaps you would prefer to wait a while?

For my part, at the end of this year, I am due to make my next films: an adaptation of a novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, which is why I would prefer the interviews to take place between 15 July and 15 September 1962.

If you were to accept the proposition, I would gather together all the documents I would need to prepare the four or five hundred questions which I wish to ask you, and I would have the Brussels Cinémathèque screen for me those films of yours with which I am least familiar. That would take me about three weeks, which would mean I could be at your disposal from the beginning of July.

A few weeks after our interviews, the transcribed, edited and corrected text would be submitted to you in English so that you might make any corrections that you considered useful, and the book itself would be ready to come out by the end of this year.

Awaiting your reply, I beg you to accept, dear Mr. Hitchcock, my profound admiration. I remain yours sincerely, Francois Truffaut” François Truffaut (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock, June 02, 1962)

The letter was effective and Alfred Hitchcock soon responded to the proposal with a telegram.

Dear Monsieur Truffaut, Your letter brought tears to my eyes, and I am so grateful to receive such a tribute from you. – Stop – I am shooting The Birds, and this will continue until 15 July, and after that, I will have to begin editing which will take me several weeks. – Stop – I think [that] I will wait until we have finished shooting The Birds, and then I will contact you with the idea of getting together around the end of August. – Stop – Thank you again for your charming letter. – Kind regards. – Cordially yours, Alfred Hitchcock.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Telegram to François Truffaut)

It is easy to understand how such an admiring letter might bring tears to a man’s eyes, and it is clear that Hitchcock was enthusiastic about the book. As fate would have it, the interviews commenced on August 13, 1962—Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday.

“Every morning he would pick us up at the Beverly Hills Hotel to take us to his office at Universal Studios. With each of us wearing a microphone and a sound engineer in the next room recording our voices, we kept up a running conversation from nine to six every day, achieving something of a track record as we talked our way through lunches.

A witty raconteur noted for his entertaining interviews, Hitchcock started out true to form, regaling us with a series of amusing anecdotes. It was only on the third day that he became more sober and thoughtful in spelling out the ups and downs of his career. His assessment of the achievements and the failures was genuinely self-critical, and his account of his doubts, frustrations, and hopes was completely sincere. What emerged as the talks progressed was a striking contrast between Hitchcock’s public image and his real self.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

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This is a photograph of Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, and Helen Scott that was taken by photographer Philippe Halsman.

The process of transcribing the interviews and editing them down into a cohesive book was a bit more difficult and time-consuming than Truffaut had predicted. His originally anticipated “few weeks” turned into years.

“While we were recording these talks with Hitchcock, the final editing of The Birds, his forty-eighth picture, was underway. It took us some four years to transcribe the tapes and gather the photographs. Whenever I met Hitchcock during this period, I would question him in order to update the book I called ‘the Hitchbook.’ The first edition, therefore, published at the end of 1967, concludes with his fiftieth film, Torn Curtain.” François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

The book would eventually be revised to include commentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s final three films and has gone on to change the way that critics look at Alfred Hitchcock’s work. In fact, it has altered film theory in general. Better yet, the project led to a friendship that lasted decades. Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut frequently corresponded and even consulted with one another regarding their current projects. When Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a career-altering film entitled Kaleidoscope (later re-titled Frenzy—but this project should not be confused with his 1972 film), he sent Francois Truffaut the script. Truffaut wrote back with an in-depth letter that included thoughtful script notes. (Universal later forced the director to abandon the project in favor of Topaz.) Truffaut was also among the many speakers when Hitchcock was presented with AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Of course, all of these things are touched upon in this wonderful documentary, but the infamous sound recordings of their trailblazing interview is the thread that holds the entire film together (and our readers will be relieved to note that the result is a better-tailored product than the suit that Norman Lloyd wore in Saboteur). The tapes of these recordings were discovered in the early nineties by Serge Toubiana, who co-wrote the film with Kent Jones.

“I wrote the project because my point of view is very specific because I am the guy who found the tapes a long time ago. It was in 1992. I was making a documentary on Truffaut at the time and I was working in the archives of Truffaut’s office in Les Films du Carrosse with a friend Michel Pascal who co-directed the documentary: Francois Truffaut: Stolen Portraits. I was looking in the archives and I found a big box and I opened it and we saw many reel-to-reel tapes. We put one of the reels on the Nagra and suddenly the voice of Hitchcock was there. It was a miracle, you know. These were the tapes from the famous dialogue between Truffaut and Hitchcock in August 1962 in Universal Studios in Hitchcock’s bungalow. And we had the voices, the three voices: Truffaut’s voice in French, Hitchcock speaking English and Helen Scott who translated, and it was incredible material. We put just a very small extract in the movie we did at the time…

…I read the book when I was very young in the 60s – the first edition in 1966 in France. You know the first edition is very special, it’s not “Hitchcock/Truffaut”–it’s “Le Cinema selon Alfred Hitchcock.” It was such an important book in my education of cinema. For me, this dialogue is one of the most important moments in the story of cinema because you have a young French director who was also an important critic, Francois Truffaut, who was thirty at the time in 1962 and had just made three movies. And you had Alfred Hitchcock who was the master. And this young guy he wanted to make, as he said in the introduction, a cookbook of how Hitchcock made his career as an auteur. So it’s a dialogue between the French theory of auteurs and a Hollywood director who had never won the Oscar but who was very famous as an entertainment director but not [considered] an auteur. And Truffaut wanted to prove that Hitchcock was a master. So it’s a dialogue between French and American cinema.” -Serge Toubiana (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Those who have already read the essential text should still find these audio excerpts fascinating because there are subtle differences that are rather revelatory.

“It comes as a revelation because in the book Hitchcock appears to be very cold, precise, distanced and kind of lacking in humor, except for some not very good jokes that he tells. The tapes are another matter entirely – he’s very warm and very funny and very spontaneous. And Truffaut did not speak a word of English and so he was very dependent on Helen Scott who was translating every word. She got some right, some not so right. Then her translation was amended in France, then he worked on the book, then I believe it was re-translated back into English – that’s the way it reads to me. So it’s a kind of a remove from Hitchcock – so in general, that’s a revelation. Also, the sense of him wondering if he should have spent more time on character is in the book, but you can hear him returning to it in the tapes. That’s fascinating and beautiful and very moving.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

These audio excerpts are illustrated by a wealth of wonderful film clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s vast filmography and are commented upon by ten of cinema’s most respected filmmakers: Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Olivier Assayas, Paul Schrader, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and James Gray. Some of these participants may seem like unusual choices, but this actually illustrates the far-reaching influence of Truffaut’s text. However, one does wonder why certain directors weren’t included in the film. A few obvious examples would be Guillermo del Toro—who considers himself a faithful student of Hitchcock’s, and Brian De Palma—who has made a career of directing blatant Hitchcock homages. However, this is more of an observation than an outright criticism.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is an extremely enjoyable experience and an in-depth appreciation of the landmark text. What is isn’t and what it was never intended to be—and this should be stressed—is a replacement for the landmark book. Cinephiles will still want to read and re-read Truffaut’s tome as it is the definitive source for anyone wishing to learn about the master of suspense. Similar book-length interviews about various filmmakers have been published in the years since but none offer such an in-depth commentary on such a long career or such a truly unique voice in the cinema. In fact, one hopes that the film renews enough interest in the book for publishers to see the potential of a brand-new edition that features a re-edited version of the text that doesn’t exclude quite as much material.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal packages the Blu-ray disk in a standard Blu-ray case with fil related artwork that features a photo of François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that had originally appeared in Truffaut’s landmark book. The photo was later utilized in the artwork for this documentary’s theatrical one-sheet and this is the same artwork featured here.

The disc’s menu makes use of the same photograph and is accompanied by Jeremiah Bornfield’s score.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s AVC encoded image transfer is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect. The interview segments are quite sharp and showcase an excellent level of detail, but the film’s archival footage is sometimes a bit less stellar. However, any shortcomings seem to be inherent in the documentary’s source elements—and these are never distracting. There is some also minor strobing during some of the textual footage, but this is barely noticeable. Most will be more than satisfied with the overall quality.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is really quite great, but the interview driven documentary doesn’t offer much in the way of dynamic surround speaker activity. What it does offer is a solid representation of the film’s original soundtrack—and this is all anyone has a right to expect.

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Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Kent Jones in Conversation with Noah Baumbach – (23:51)

This is essentially more of a conversation about Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, the differences between the audio tapes and the book, how the documentary was shaped, and other such relevant topics. The Q&A was held after the film’s New York première on October 27th, 2015. It is an interesting conversation that never becomes boring even if there isn’t much in the way of revelatory information.

Peter Bogdanovich Remembers Hitchcock – (06:37)

This is the first of four featurettes that are obviously compilations of unused footage shot for the documentary that didn’t make it into the final film. They have each been edited to focus on a particular subject. In the case of this featurette, we have Peter Bogdanovich discussing Alfred Hitchcock and how he became to be associated with the director. It is an interesting little conversation with Bogdanovich, who is always an articulate and interesting interview subject.

An Appreciation of Notorious – (06:16)

Various interview subjects discuss Notorious, and it is clear that the participants have either a fondness or a sincere respect for the film. The observations are always interesting if never revelatory, and fans of the film will be especially happy to spend six minutes of their time watching this nice little featurette. This is probably the strongest of the four featurettes included on the disc, although it would have benefited from showing footage from the actual film.

Rope: Pro and Con – (05:01)

Some of the interview subjects discuss Rope and whether they think it is a good film or merely an interesting failed experiment. A case for both sides is argued, but there seems to be a slight preference for footage where participants discuss why the film doesn’t work. It is an interesting little featurette but fans of the film might be a bit put off.

Richard Linklater on Truffaut – (03:52)

This is a short piece that finds Richard Linklater discussing his admiration for Truffaut and the “Hitchbook.” There isn’t much in the way of information here, but it is a nice little surface level conversation. One of the more interesting comments made here is that Truffaut probably could have added another film to his filmography in the time it took him to prepare the book.

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Final Words:

Hitchcock/Truffaut is one of the absolutely essential documentaries concerning Alfred Hitchcock and it comes to Blu-ray with a solid transfer from Universal Studios.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock: Revised Edition, October 2, 1985)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebook’s, 1999)

Unknown (Hitchcock/Truffaut Press Kit, 2015)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

 

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

Spine # 56

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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

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

Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeline Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

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

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

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

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

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

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

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Final Words:

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

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

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

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Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

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

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

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

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

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

Blu-ray Review: Rear Window

cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region Free

Length: 1:52:32

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

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

Alternate Audio: DTS French Mono, DTS Spanish Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.66:1

Bitrate: 31.99 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. This same Blu-ray disc has also been released in a 5-disc set entitled The Essentials Collection.

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“…all I can say about it is; it’s one of the most cinematic films I’ve ever made. You see, people – especially technicians – are mistaken as to what is cinematic. First of all, the photography of people in dialogue is definitely nothing to do with the cinema whatsoever – it’s purely an extension of the theatre. I’ve done it myself, I know, it doesn’t relate. Photographing of westerns, galloping horses, it what it is – it’s photography, but not necessarily cinematic.

 Whereas, in a picture like Rear Window, you have a man sitting at a window looking: the first piece of film a close-up, the second piece of film is what he sees, the third piece of film is his reaction. Now here, in rapid succession, are three piece of film put together, which is really what “pure cinema” is – the relative position of the pieces of film which creates an idea, like words in a sentence. Out of these three pieces of film an idea is born and an audience [will] react to that idea, from the pieces of film that they’ve seen…You are putting the audience in the place of Stewart. They are verifying what he sees.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation, Channel 28, 1969)

Rear Window is indeed a work of cinematic art. Alfred Hitchcock had first come across Cornell Woolrich’s ‘It Had to Be Murder’ (which was later given the better title, ‘Rear Window’) in 1951 and decided to make it his first film for Paramount in 1953.

The opening paragraphs of “It Had To Be Murder” would not lead anyone to believe that the film has diverged in any significant way from the source text.

“I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.

 Sure, I suppose it was a little bit like prying, could even have been mistaken for the fevered concentration of a Peeping Tom. That wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the idea. The idea was, my movements were strictly limited just around this time. I could get from the window to the bed and from the bed to the window, and that was all. The bay window was about the best feature my rear bedroom had in the warm weather. It was unscreened, so I had to sit with the light out or I would have had every insect in the vicinity in on me. I couldn’t sleep, because I was used to getting plenty of exercise. I’d never acquired the habit of reading books to ward off boredom, so I hadn’t that to turn to. Well, what should I do, sit there with my eyes tightly shuttered?” –Cornell Woolrich (It Had to Be Murder)

However, as one continues to read, it becomes clear that there were numerous changes made during the adaptation process. The most immediately obvious of these changes concern the characters. There was no love interest in the original story, there was no insurance company nurse, and the occupants of the various windows across the courtyard were not in Woolrich’s short story.

“Well, we added a woman to the innumerable characters in the various rooms. All created. None of which was in the book. We engaged a woman masseur who was played by Thelma Ritter. She was an additional character. I made the leading man a photographer…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

Woolrich’s story does allude to other occupants across the way early in the story, but these occupants are only mentioned twice early on, and are different from those in the film.

“…Just to pick a few at random: Straight over, and the windows square, there was a young jitter-couple, kids in their teens, only just married. It would have killed them to stay home one night. They were always in such a hurry to go, wherever it was they went, they never remembered to turn out the lights. I don’t think it missed once in all the time I was watching. But they never forgot altogether, either. I was to learn to call this delayed action, as you will see. He’d always come skittering madly back in about five minutes, probably from all the way down in the street, and rush around killing the switches. Then fall over something in the dark on his way out. They gave me an inward chuckle, those two.

 The next house down, the windows already narrowed a little with perspective. There was a certain light in that one that always went out each night too. Something about it, it used to make me a little sad. There was a woman living there with her child, a young widow I suppose. I’d see her put the child to bed, and then bend over and kiss her in a wistful sort of way. She’d shade the light off her and sit there painting her eyes and mouth. Then she’d go out. She’d never come back till the night was nearly spent. – Once I was still up, and I looked and she was sitting there motionless with her head buried in her arms. Something about it, it used to make me a little sad…” –Cornell Woolrich (It Had to Be Murder)

The second of these examples begins to resemble the character of ‘Miss Lonely-hearts’ in the film. However, one can only speculate whether or not the idea was derived from the original story. The short story failed to utilize these characters, and they were only mentioned once more (and only in passing) a few paragraphs later. Hitchcock’s film manages to use the occupants across the courtyard as a comment on Jeff and Lisa’s dilemma. They are not simply there to fill the screen.

“It shows every kind of human behavior – a real index of individual behavior. The picture would have been very dull if we hadn’t done that. What you see across the way is a group of little stories that, as you say, mirror a small universe.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Instead of an insurance company nurse and a love interest, Woolrich’s protagonist has a houseboy named Sam. It is Sam who goes to Thorwald’s apartment in the book (to mess up his apartment and not to look for evidence). The murderer’s method of body disposal was also more satisfying in the film. Woolrich’s protagonist buried his wife under the floor of a vacant apartment and cemented over her.

Even the story’s climax was changed from the source.

“There wasn’t a weapon in the place with me. There were books there on the wall, in the dark, within reach. Me, who never read. The former owner’s books. There was a bust of Rousseau or Montesquieu, I’d never been able to decide which, one of those gents with flowing manes, topping them. It was a monstrosity, bisque clay, but it too dated from before my occupancy.

 I arched my middle upward from the chair seat and clawed desperately up at it. Twice my fingertips slipped off it, then at the third raking I got it to teeter, and the fourth brought it down into my lap, pushing me down into the chair. There was a steamer rug under me. I
didn’t need it around me in this weather, I’d been using it to soften the seat of the chair. I tugged it out from under and mantled it around me like an Indian brave’s blanket. Then I squirmed far down in the chair, let my head and one shoulder dangle out over the arm, on the side next to the wall. I hoisted the bust to my other, upward shoulder, balanced it there precariously for a second head, blanket tucked around its ears…

 …He was good with knobs and hinges and things. I never heard the door open, and this one, unlike the one downstairs, was right behind me. A little eddy of air puffed through the dark at me. I could feel it because my scalp, the real one, was all wet at the roots of the hair right then…

 …The flash of the shot lit up the room for a second, it was so dark. Or at least the corners of it, like flickering, weak lightning. The bust bounced on my shoulder and disintegrated into chunks.” –Cornell Woolrich (It Had to Be Murder)

After this, Jeff is rescued by Boyne (the police detective named Doyle in the film) and a chase ensues ending in Thorwald’s death.

Hitchcock would turn this enjoyable crime story into brilliant cinema with the help of John Michael Hayes (who would continue to work with the director on his next three films).

“I engaged a writer… John Michael Hayes; and the writing was done in my office – with his typewriter – in my office, and there are many witnesses if you need them. In other words, I dictate the picture. I did not hand that book to the writer and say, ‘Make a screenplay of this,’ which is a custom of the business. But it doesn’t apply to me, because I make a specific type of film, and I dictate to him what I want to go into the story – and just as a matter of interest – the reason that is done is because I want it done my way, in my style, and I would say in that process there is twenty percent Cornell Woolrich and eighty percent Hitchcock.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

The original treatment was much different than the final script. Much of the suspenseful action occurs off-screen in the Hayes treatment. This action is related to Jeff in dialogue (breaking one of Hitchcock’s very strict rules about cinematic storytelling). In the treatment, Lisa follows Thorwald when he leaves his apartment. While Jeff waits for Lisa to return, he notices that Thorwald’s zinnias have grown shorter when compared to a slide that he had taken previously. Jeff is filled in on all of the suspenseful action upon Lisa’s return.

“What did he do? Where did he go? Jeff wanted to know. No place that made much sense to her. He walked to a huge excavation on Martine Street where workers were pouring cement for the foundation of a new insurance company building. He stayed there, watching the work, until the cement was poured and smoothed. Then he went to a nearby bar for a couple of quick drinks. The drinks seemed to relax him, for once he came out of the bar his nervousness was gone and he no longer looked behind himself. Then he stopped in a drugstore for some cigarettes. While waiting for change, he noticed some crime magazines on a stand. Then his face went white. He seemed shaken. He picked out one of the magazines, which one she couldn’t see, paid for it, and hurried back to his apartment.” –John Michael Hayes (Treatment for ‘Rear Window’ – as it appears in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Another major difference from the finished film is established here. All references to burying body parts on an excavation site that would be paved over are omitted in the finished film. (This is obviously suggested by the renovated apartment building burial in Cornell Woolrich’s short story.) In this early treatment, Lisa crosses the courtyard and enters his apartment to retrieve the crime magazine Thorwald purchased in the drugstore. As in the film, this is the moment that Jeff realizes his immense love for Lisa.

“‘Oh Lisa darling,’ Jeff says aloud. ‘He’s already killed one woman. I don’t want him to kill you – of all women.’ And Jeff is shocked to learn how much he loves her. He loves you Lisa. Get out of there, and get back to him. You’ve made him understand.” –John Michael Hayes (Treatment for ‘Rear Window’ – as it appears in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Hayes drew upon his own experiences for Jeff’s realization.

“That came out of my life. Before my wife and I were married, we decided to delay our marriage until I was more successful. We got into an automobile accident and she was thrown out of the car onto the highway amongst the broken glass and metal and everything. But in the brief moment when I saw her rolling down the highway before I was knocked unconscious against the windshield, I said, ‘Oh my God. If anything happened to her, my life won’t be worth anything.’ And I decided I was not going to wait another minute if we ever lived through this thing… So when I came to figure out how we were going to write that scene, I said, ‘That automobile accident.’ He saw her and thought maybe it’s the last he’d ever see of her, because this man is capable of killing and cutting her up.” -John Michael Hayes (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Another difference in the treatment is an altered ending. After forcing Jeff onto the window ledge Boyne (the detective, later re-named Doyle) fires three shots into Thorwald’s chest. It is too late. Jeff falls and breaks his other leg. They are told that Mrs. Thorwald’s head was buried in the flower bed, and Lisa and Jeff come together once and for all.

“Jeff and Lisa come together in love. He tells her what he thought when he was in danger. The experience, she said, awakened her also. But the thing that impressed her most was that melody the songwriter was playing in her moment of greatest horror. It was utterly beautiful and she was determined Thorwald wouldn’t kill her until the song was finished.” –John Michael Hayes (Treatment for ‘Rear Window’ – as it appears in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Alfred Hitchcock had many ideas for changes to the treatment. As an avid reader of true-crime, the director referred Hayes to two very famous cases.

“…I also included the essence of two famous English cases. One was the case of Dr. Crippen, the first man ever to be arrested by radio at sea. He was uncovered because he gave his wife’s jewelry to his secretary and that was his uncovering. A wife doesn’t go away and leave her jewelry behind. That was inserted into the story. There was also the case of Patrick Mahon. …Patrick Mahon murdered a woman, cut the body up into pieces and threw them out. Carried them in a suitcase and threw them out of the window of a train between Eastbourne and London, but he had a problem with the head. He put the head into the fire and burned it, and the heat of the fire caused the eyes to open, that indicated to me, that whatever this murder may be, the murderer would have a problem with the head. Therefore, I put that incident in and buried the head in the garden. And it was through the dog scratching on the garden where the head was that caused the murderer to kill the dog. That was taken from an actual case.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

While Lisa searches Thorwald’s apartment for a crime magazine in the treatment, the script had Lisa searching for Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring (suggested by the Crippen case). This allowed Hitchcock to make visual and thematic allusions to Jeff and Lisa’s problem in the story.

Once the story had evolved into a satisfactory script, Hitchcock ‘dictated’ each and every shot as seen in the film and it was made into a shooting script.

“We sat down in his office and [Hitchcock] broke up all the scenes into individual shots, and made sketches of them, and laid out the picture, which he said is now done. ‘All we have to do is go on the set and make sure they do what we’ve given them.’” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Hitchcock’s method of shooting a film was different from the standard method. Since he often designed the film in a very particular way, he rarely shot coverage. He shot only those shots needed to cut the film together, and he usually knew exactly where his cuts would be.

“…when this film, Rear Window, was finished somebody went into the cutting room and said, ‘Where are the out-takes? Where is the unused film?’ And there was a small roll of a hundred feet. That was all that was left over.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

These hundred feet of film would be made up of several seconds at the beginning and ending of each shot, and any unusable takes taken during the production. In the case of Rear Window, the film was very specifically shot in order to adhere to Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-designed structure.

“The rhythm of the cutting in Rear Window speeds up as the film goes on. This is because of the nature of the structure of the film. At the beginning, life is going on quite normally. The tempo is leisurely. There’s a bit of a conflict between the man and the girl. And then gradually the first suspicion grows and it increases. And naturally as you reach the last third of your picture the events have to pile on top of each other. If you didn’t, and if you slowed the tempo down, it would show up considerably.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Color was also an important element of Hitchcock’s design.

“When you come down to the question of color, again it’s the same as the orchestration with cutting. If you noticed in Rear Window, Miss Lonely Hearts always dressed in emerald green. To make sure that that came off, there was no other green in the picture, because we had to follow her very closely when she went across the street into the cafe. So I reserved that color for her.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Hitchcock’s eye for detail extended to the sets built for the film. He wanted it to look truly authentic in every detail.Doc Erickson was sent to New York to take photos of several Greenwich Village courtyards. Joseph MacMillan would then use these photographs to design the film’s wonderful set.

“In the film, the courtyard was modeled after Christopher and West Tenth Streets, between Bleeker and Hudson Streets. The immense set – the largest built at Paramount to that date – was constructed on Stage 18. According to a Paramount press release, the set consisted of structures rising up to six stories, which contained thirty-one apartments, fire escapes, an alley, a street, and a skyline. It took six weeks to build.” –Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

Lighting the set would prove to be a herculean chore, but it was all prepared ahead of time. Robert Burks supervised the lighting and photographed test footage ahead of time.

“I went on the soundstage about ten days prior to the starting date. Using a skeleton crew, we pre-lit every one of the thirty-one apartments for both day and night, as well as lit the exterior of the courtyard for the dual-type illumination required. A remote switch controlled the lights in each apartment. On the stage, we had a switching set-up that looked like the console of the biggest organ ever made.” – Robert Burks (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

This lighting set-up coupled with Hitchcock’s unusual shooting methods made for an extremely efficient shoot. Production # 10331 started principal photography on November 27 at 9:00 a.m. By all accounts, the shoot went quite smoothly with only a few exceptions. One of these exceptions had to do with unacceptable image definition and detail in certain scenes. Since a lot of the action takes place from across a courtyard, it was sometimes difficult to achieve the level of detail necessary for audience comprehension.

“We had one shot in the picture that was a key shot in the plot… the salesman-murderer is observed by Stewart… going through his wife’s effects during her absence. He takes her wedding ring out of her purse and looks at it. The first time we attempted the shot, we made it with a 10-inch lens. On the screen, it wasn’t clear that the object was a wedding ring. It was obvious that it was a ring, but that was all.” – Robert Burks (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Burks and Hitchcock finally compromised and used a 6-inch lens and moved the camera onto a boom (outside of the apartment window). There were also a few in-camera effects that ate some of the film’s production time. One of these effects was Jeff’s fall from his apartment window.

“The scene showing James Stewart falling from the window was achieved by creating a ‘traveling matte’ shot, which combined live-action with a pre-photographed background. The portion of the shot in which Stewart appears to be falling was photographed on Stage 3 by seating the actor against a black velvet background with a camera overhead. Then while Stewart acted as if he was falling, the camera in fact moved in an upward direction away from him. This image was later superimposed against a stationary shot taken on the actual courtyard set, creating the illusion of Stewart falling into the courtyard.” –Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

Hitchcock was wise enough to delete one scene from the film. Following the opening shots of the courtyard and Jeff’s apartment, there was to be a rather pointless scene inside the office of Ivar Gunnison (Jefferies’ editor). In the scene, Gunnison talks to his assistant (Jack Bryce) about a job in Indochina. They both agree that our crippled protagonist is the best man for the job. The scene was not only unnecessary; it would have ruined the brilliant structure of the film. Hitchcock decided against using the scene before principal photography was even complete. One wonders if he ever really intended to use the footage. Frank Cady played Ivar Gunnison in the scene and the husband on the fire escape. It seems unlikely that Cady would be cast in both parts if Hitchcock actually planned on using the scene.

One of the most overlooked elements of Rear Window is the soundtrack. Hitchcock was capable of creating soundtracks that were simultaneously dramatic and realistic.

“Hitchcock insisted that Rear Window be authentic in every way, dictating in a November 5 memo that actual Greenwich Village ambient sound be recorded so that the soundtrack would be as true to life as possible.” –Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

The director would also dictate precise sounds for various moments in the film in an astonishing amount of detail. The results are truly incredible. Of course, the same amount of detail went into the film’s music. With the exception of the music played over the opening credits, all of the music heard in the film was diegetic (meaning that it came from a source within the film’s setting). Most of the music heard in the film is played from quite a distance and by someone within Hitchcock’s Rear Window universe.

Franz Waxman had worked as the composer on three earlier Hitchcock films (Rebecca, Suspicion, and The Paradine Case), and would work on this film as well. However, the job called for a much different approach. Source music was used throughout most of the film (including such popular songs as “Mona Lisa,” “That’s Amore,” “To See You,” “Waiting for My True Love to Appear,” and “Lover”). With the exception of the opening credit music, Waxman’s task was to write the music being composed by the songwriter in one of the apartments. The song being composed was entitled “Lisa” and the finished composition included lyrics by Harold Rome. (Rome submitted alternate lyrics called “To Love You,” but these obviously weren’t used.)

Hitchcock was never satisfied with the final result of this element of the movie and would always refer to it in interviews.

“There’s no score in Rear Window. I was a little disappointed at the lack of a structure in the title song. I had a motion-picture songwriter when I should have chosen a popular songwriter. I was rather hoping to use the genesis, just the idea of a song which would then gradually grow and grow until it was used by a full orchestra. But I don’t think that came out as strongly as I would have liked it to have done.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Principal Photography wrapped on January 13, 1954 with only a few simple re-shoots left to complete this part of the production. These were shot on February 26. After this, the main obstacle wouldn’t be the editing (since this was all worked out). Instead, Hitchcock would have to wrestle with the Production Code Administration. He had already been warned before principal photography began that certain aspects of the script were “unsavory.”

Joseph Breen would elaborate about his objections to the screenplay’s content. Many of the problems had to do with the character of Miss Torso.

“It is apparent that she is nude above the waist and it is only by the most judicious selection of camera angles that her nudity is concealed… We feel that this gives the entire action the flavor of a peep show.” –Joseph Breen (Memo – as it is quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

It was clear that there could be no implication of a topless ‘Miss Torso.’ However, this was not the Breen’s only objection. The character of Stella also caused complications. He disliked the dialogue, “When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go.” Breen referred to the line as “potty humor.” 

In addition to these things, the PCA did not care for the sequence where Lisa spends the night in Jeff’s apartment.

“We think the same story point can be carried if considerably less emphasis were placed on the action and display of her underwear, pajamas and other paraphernalia… and it were indicated that she is going to stay there simply because the mystery that has risen at this point in the story.” –Joseph Breen (Memo – as it is quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

In order to distract the production code, Hitchcock shot two different versions of certain Miss Torso shots. One version is as we see it in the film (and how Hitchcock always intended to present her), while the alternate shots obviously implied nudity. When the PCA saw the film with these alternate shots, they forgot about Stella’s dialogue and the sequence where Lisa shows off her nightdress.

“It was common practice that you gave censors bait, which they focused on, and therefore the things that you really wanted to keep didn’t appear as harmful. This was done all the time, not just by Hitchcock. So we threw them some bait with Miss Torso, and they got all in a froth about that.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

When Rear Window premiered on August 4, 1954, it was met with overwhelming commercial and critical success. The critical opinion of the era is encapsulated by William Brogdon’s review for Variety.

“A tight suspense show is offered in Rear Window, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better thrillers. James Stewart’s established star value, plus the newer potentiality of Grace Kelly, currently getting a big buildup, and strong word-of-mouth possibilities indicate sturdy grossing chances in the keys and elsewhere.

Hitchcock combines technical and artistic skills in a manner that makes this an unusually good piece of murder mystery entertainment. A sound story by Cornell Woolrich and a cleverly dialoged screenplay by John Michael Hayes provide the producer-director with a solid basis for thrill-making. Of equal importance in delivering tense melodrama are the Technicolor camera work by Robert Burks and the apartment-courtyard setting executed by Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson.

Hitchcock confines all of the action to this single setting and draws the nerves to the snapping point in developing the thriller phases of the plot. He is just as skilled in making use of lighter touches in either dialog or situation to relieve the tension when it nears the unbearable. Interest never wavers during the 112 minutes of footage…

…The production makes clever use of natural sounds and noises throughout, with not even the good score by Franz Waxman being permitted to intrude unnaturally into the drama.” – William Brogdon (Variety, July 14, 1954)

There were critics who complained about the film’s subject matter. C.A. Lejeune is probably the most famous example. As a matter of fact, Alfred Hitchcock rarely discussed the film without talking about her review.

“…Miss Lejeune, the critic from the London ‘Observer’ complained about that. She made some comment to the effect that Rear Window was a horrible film because the hero spent all of his time peeping out of a window. What’s so horrible about that? Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

François Truffaut would write one of the more interesting reviews on the film upon its release in 1954.

“…I see when I sum it up in this way that the plot seems more slick than profound, and yet I am convinced that this film is one of the most important of all the seventeen Hitchcock has made in Hollywood, one of those rare films without imperfection or weakness, which concedes nothing. For example, it is clear that the entire film revolves around the idea of marriage. When Kelly goes into the suspect’s apartment, the proof she is looking for is the murdered woman’s wedding ring; Kelly puts it on her own finger as Stewart follows her movements through his binoculars from the other side of the courtyard. But there is nothing at the end that indicates that they will marry. Rear Window goes beyond pessimism; it is really a cruel film. Stewart fixes his glasses on his neighbors only to catch them in moments of failure, in ridiculous postures, when they appear grotesque or even hateful.

The film’s construction is very like a musical composition: several themes are intermingled and are in perfect counterpoint to each other — marriage, suicide, degradation, and death — and they are all bathed in a refined eroticism (the sound recording of lovemaking is extraordinarily precise and realistic). Hitchcock’s impassiveness and “objectivity” are more apparent than real…

Rear Window is a film about indiscretion, about intimacy violated and taken by surprise at its most wretched moments; a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams…

…Hitchcock has acquired such expertise at cinematographic recital that he has, in thirty years, become much more than a good storyteller. As he loves his craft passionately, never stops making movies, and has long since resolved any production problems, he must invent difficulties and create new disciplines for himself to avoid boredom and repetition. His recent films are filled with fascinating constraints that he always overcomes brilliantly.

In this case, the challenge was to shoot a whole film in one single place, and solely from Stewart’s point of view. We see only what he sees, and from his vantage point, at the exact moment he sees it. What could have been a dry and academic gamble, an exercise in cold virtuosity, turns out to be a fascinating spectacle because of a sustained inventiveness which nails us to our seats as firmly as James Stewart is immobilized by his plaster cast.

In the face of such a film, so odd and so novel, we are liable to forget somewhat the stunning virtuosity; each scene by itself is a gamble that has been won. The effort to achieve freshness and novelty affects the camera’s movements, the special effects, decor, color. (Recall the murderer’s gold-framed eyeglasses lit in the dark only by the intermittent glow of a cigarette!)

Anyone who has perfectly understood Rear Window (which is not possible in one viewing) can, if he so wishes, dislike it and refuse to be involved in a game where blackness of character is the rule. But it is so rare to find such a precise idea of the world in a film that one must bow to its success, which is unarguable.

To clarify Rear Window, I’d suggest this parable: The courtyard is the world, the reporter/photographer is the filmmaker, the binoculars stand for the camera and its lenses. And Hitchcock? He is the man we love to be hated by.” –François Truffaut (1954)

One sign of a great film is the ability to see it differently upon multiple viewings. Truffaut would later change his mind about the film’s pessimistic qualities.

“I was still working as a critic the first time I saw Rear Window, and I remember writing that the picture was very gloomy, rather pessimistic, and quite cruel. But now I don’t see it in that light at all; in fact, I feel it has a rather compassionate approach. What Stewart sees through his window is not horrible, but simply a display of human weaknesses and people in pursuit of happiness.” –François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

The Academy honored the film with 4 Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Sound Recording). However, the film failed to win in any of these categories. Perhaps a better sign of a film’s merit is its ability to impress audiences many years later.

In 1983 Vincent Canby wrote an overwhelmingly positive review of the film after seeing a retrospective screening at the New York Film Festival (it would soon be re-released to theaters).

“…Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 chef d’oeuvre , Rear Window, has reopened in New York to become, quite simply, the most elegantly entertaining American film now in first run in New York or, possibly, in second- , third- or even fourth-run. Its appeal, which goes beyond that of other, equally masterly Hitchcock works, remains undiminished.

Rear Window, which has been out of circulation for a number of years, is the first of five Hitchcock films that will be coming back to theaters in the next several months – the others being Vertigo(1958), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), The Trouble With Harry (1956) and Rope(1948).

As much as I admire all of these, especially Vertigo,I can’t imagine that any one of them will top the feelings of exhilaration that are prompted byRear Window, this most bittersweet of Hitchcockian suspense-romances. Make no mistake about it:Rear Windowis as much of a romance as it is a brilliant exercise in suspense…

… Ever since I saw Rear Window when it was initially released, I’ve had fond memories of it, but, as rarely happens, those memories turned out not to do full justice to the film I went back to see last Sunday morning at the Cinema Studio. Everything about it is a joy, even the new print, the color quality of which is far superior to that of the 1963 Leopard, also in reissue now…

…However, nothing Hayes did before or after Rear Window quite equals the explosive concision of this possible mainstream masterpiece. In no other Hitchcock film, perhaps, not even in Notorious, do the events of the adventure play such an integral part in the development of the love story…

… All of the film’s production elements are superior, especially the huge set… It represents the best of studio artifice, being a unit that includes the rear of Jeff’s apartment as well as his view of the garden court and buildings that enclose the court. There is one comparatively large, comparatively new apartment building, which is flanked by what appear to be brownstones, one Federal house and other buildings that have been remodeled out of all associations to the past. As lighted and photographed by Robert Burks, this set is as much a character as any of the actors in the film…

… At the time Rear Window was first released, there was a certain amount of self-righteous outrage directed at the film’s seemingly casual attitude toward voyeurism, sometimes called ‘Peeping Tomism.’ I was mystified by those criticisms, then and now, and not necessarily because all of us probably tend to peep at one point or another, given the opportunity…” -Vincent Canby (New York Times, October 9, 1983)

Roger Ebert’s review for the Chicago Sun-Times was no less enthusiastic.

“Now this is a movie. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window develops such a clean, uncluttered line from beginning to end that we’re drawn through it (and into it) effortlessly. The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like … well, like spying on your neighbors. Hitchcock traps us right from the first…

…What’s interesting is the way Hitchcock spreads the guilt around. Although the man across the way (Raymond Burr) seems to be the ‘worst’ person in this movie, we don’t get to know him well and we never identify with him. Instead, we identify with James Stewart. And because he is doing something he’s not supposed to do, because he is essentially amoral and takes liberties with other people’s privacy, somehow he’s guilty, too…

…Now Sir Alfred has passed away, the estate has been settled, and the movie is back in theaters…

…That’s the best place for it, not only because the screen is bigger, etc., but also because seeing this movie with an audience adds a whole additional dimension to it. We are all asked to join Stewart in his voyeurism, and we cheerfully agree…” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 7, 1983)

Almost 20 years after this review, Roger Ebert would include the film on his list of 4-star “Great Movies.

“The hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is trapped in a wheelchair, and we’re trapped, too–trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbors, we share his obsession. It’s wrong, we know, to spy on others, but after all, aren’t we always voyeurs when we go to the movies? Here’s a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience–look through a lens at the private lives of strangers…

…Rarely has any film so boldly presented its methods in plain view. Jeff sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw–all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion…

… The remote-control suspense scenes in Rear Window are Hitchcock at his most diabolical, creating dangerous situations and then letting Lisa and Stella linger in them through Jeff’s carelessness or inaction. He stays in his wheelchair. They venture out into danger – Kelly even entering the apartment of the suspected wife killer. He watches. We see danger approaching. We, and he, cannot move, cannot sound the alarm.

This level of danger and suspense is so far elevated above the cheap thrills of the modern slasher films that Rear Window, intended as entertainment in 1954, is now revealed as art…” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, February 20, 2000)

Even today, Rear Window stands out as an amazing work of cinematic art. It isn’t merely one of the best films in Alfred Hitchcock’s canon. It stands amongst the best American films ever made.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches. Those who opt to purchase the disc individually will not miss out on anything substantial.

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

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

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The design of Rear Window craves the added resolution of a Blu-ray disc, so it is nice to see that Universal has finally given the film an individual Blu-ray release. Rear Window was the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to be projected in ‘widescreen’ format. (Rather, it was the first film of Hitchcock’s to be shown in widescreen in every theatre. Some sources claim that Dial ‘M’ For Murder was projected in widescreen in certain theaters.) The aspect ratio is an important element of this production, because the aspect ratio was chosen to resemble the ratio of some of the apartment windows in the film. The recommended ratio was 1.66:1. This transfer retains this preferred theatrical ratio.

Clarity and detail are both vastly improved over the DVD releases of the film. Audiences can now spy on the neighbors across the courtyard and see details that they have never previously seen. The transfer carries slight grain that would have been evident in the source materials. One does notice a slight amount of DNR in a few scenes, but this seems to have been used sparingly. Instances of dirt and film damage are rare and never distracting. While a few shots appear less clear than the majority of the film, one assumes that this is an issue with the source and not the transfer. Color is well rendered for the most part (although there are a few moments of inconsistency). This is one of the better transfers of a Hitchcock film offered by Universal.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix should satisfy even the most discriminating listeners. Dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout, and the amazing ambiance of the neighborhood has never sounded better on a home video format.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Commentary with John Fawell (Author of Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film)

John Fawell’s commentary is perhaps a bit dry, but it does offer interesting analysis peppered with a few interesting production details. Most fans of the film will enjoy the commentary a great deal, and it is certainly a welcome addition to the disc.

Rear Window Ethics – (SD) – (55:10)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary about the making of Rear Window discusses the production of this wonderful classic, as well as the film’s restoration. It is one of the best supplements on a disc full of wonderful supplements.

A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes – (SD) – (13:10)

John Michael Hayes discusses how he came to work on the screenplay for Rear Window, as well as what it was like working with Alfred Hitchcock. This is a rather detailed program that offers a lot more information than one might expect from a thirteen minute featurette. One may want to watch this featurette before watching Rear Window Ethics.

Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock – (SD) – (23:31)

Hitchcock was such a visual genius that his brilliant use of sound often goes unnoticed. This short documentary discusses the master’s use of sound. This is perhaps not as comprehensive as one might like, but it is an interesting and thoughtful look at an element of Hitchcock’s work that is too often ignored.

Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of the Master – (SD) – (25:12)

Alfred Hitchcock’s work has influenced many filmmakers. In this featurette, several of these filmmakers discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s films and his technique. While this isn’t the disc’s best supplement, it is certainly nice to have it included here.

Masters of Cinema – (SD) – (33:39)

This 1972 program is an incredible addition to an already wonderful disc. We are given two interesting interviews with the master himself (one featuring Pia Lindstrom and another featuring William Everson). Certain sections of the program (including introductions and film clips) are omitted. The feature is available in a more complete form on Criterion’s The Man Who Knew Too Much disc. The picture quality on the Criterion release is also slightly superior.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (SD) – (16:15)

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films. The interview is illustrated by film clips and promotional photos and artwork from the film, which makes the experience all the more enjoyable.

Theatrical Trailer – (HD) –

In this trailer, James Stewart addresses the audience and discusses his neighbors. It is different than many vintage trailers, but does include quite a bit of footage from the actual film. Fans of the film should be delighted to have it included here.

Re-Release Trailer (Narrated by James Stewart) – (HD) –

This re-release trailer features narration from James Stewart about the re-release of Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, Rope, and Rear Window. It is surprisingly interesting, but also incredibly dated.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

This is a gallery of production stills, advertisements, and posters that were used to promote Rear Window. It is nice to see them included here.

Final Words:

Rear Window deserves multiple viewings, and Universal’s excellent transfer offers the best way to achieve this (unless you are lucky enough to see a screening in theaters).

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Cornell Woolrich (It Had To Be Murder)

Review by William Brogdon (Variety, July 14, 1954)

Review by François Truffaut (1954)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation, Channel 28, 1969)

Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

Review by Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 7, 1983)

Review by Vincent Canby (New York Times, October 9, 1983)

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, February 20, 2000)

Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: The 400 Blows – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 5

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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 08/Apr/ 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:40:02

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: Uncompressed French Mono

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 2.34:1

Bitrate: 38.83 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes a DVD disc. Criterion released the film as a Blu-ray only release in 2009 and the title is available on DVD as well.

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“I had made The 400 Blows in a state of anxiety, because I was afraid that the film would never be released and that, if it did come out, people would say, ‘After having insulted everyone as a critic, Truffaut should have stayed home!’” –François Truffaut

François Truffaut’s book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock is the text on which all other writings about the director revolve. This might sound unfair to the countless contributions of other writers to the study of Hitchcock’s work, but it would be very difficult to dispute this claim. By the time Truffaut began his series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock in the fall of 1962, he had already directed three feature films (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules and Jim).

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Les quatre cents coups (more commonly known as The 400 Blows in English speaking territories) was Truffaut’s debut feature film. It helped establish the French New Wave and was met with an amazing amount of critical praise upon its release. By all accounts, the director was rather surprised at the success of these early New Wave films.

“I don’t know if there was actually a plan behind the New Wave, but as far as I was concerned, it never occurred to me to revolutionize the cinema or to express myself differently from previous filmmakers. I always thought that the cinema was just fine, except for the fact that it lacked sincerity. I’d do the same thing others were doing, but better.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

The sincerity that Truffaut was able to capture in The 400 Blows is one of the film’s major triumphs and what sets it apart from other films that focused on childhood. Truffaut had recently finished a short film that centered on children and was not completely happy with the finished product. As a matter of fact, The 400 Blows was originally intended as one in a series of shorts focusing on children.

“My first real film, in 1957, was Les MistonsThe Mischief Makers in English. It had the advantage of telling a story, which was not common practice for short films in those days! It also gave me the opportunity to start working with actors…

…I saw it as the first of a series of sketches. It was easier at the time, and would be even now, to find money for three or four different short films than to find enough financial support for a feature film. So I planned to do a series of sketches with the common thread of childhood. I had five or six stories from which I could choose. I started with Les Mistons because it was the easiest to shoot.

When it was finished, I wasn’t completely satisfied because the film was a little too literary. Let me explain: Les Mistons is the story of five children who spy on young lovers. And I noticed, in directing these children; that they had no interest in the girl, who was played by Gérard Blain’s wife, Bernadette Lafont; the boys weren’t jealous of Blain himself, either. So I had them do contrived things to make them appear jealous, and later this annoyed me. I told myself that I’d film with children again, but next time I would have them be truer to life and use as little fiction as possible…

… When I was shooting Les Mistons, The 400 Blows already existed in my mind in the form of a short film, which was titled Antoine Runs Away

… I was disappointed by Les Mistons, or at least by its brevity. You see, I had come to reject the sort of film made up of several skits or sketches. So I preferred to leave Les Mistons as a short and to take my chances with a full-length film by spinning out the story of Antoine Runs Away. Of the five or six stories I had already outlined, this was my favorite, and it became The 400 Blows.

Antoine Runs Away was a twenty-minute sketch about a boy who plays hooky and, having no note to hand in as an excuse, makes up the story that his mother has died. His lie having been discovered, he does not dare go home and spends the night outdoors. I decided to develop this story with the help of Marcel Moussy, at the time a television writer whose shows for a program called If It Was You were very realistic and very successful. They always dealt with family or social problems. Moussy and I added to the beginning and the end of Antoine’s story until it became a kind of chronicle of a boy’s thirteenth year—of the awkward early teenaged years.

In fact, The 400 Blows became a rather pessimistic film. I can’t really say what the theme is—there is none, perhaps—but one central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about “the good old days,” the salad days of youth – because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories. Now, when I feel blue, I tell myself, ‘I’m an adult. I do as I please’ and that cheers me up right away. But then, childhood seemed like such a hard phase of life; you’re not allowed to make any mistakes. Making a mistake is a crime: you break a plate by mistake and it’s a real offense. That was my approach in The 400 Blows, using a relatively flexible script to leave room for improvisation, mostly provided by the actors. I was very happy in this respect with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, who was quite different from the original character I had imagined.”–François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

Truffaut was not afraid to change his original conception in order to enhance the film’s authenticity and believed that casting Léaud improved his vision.

“I didn’t like the idea of finding a kid on the street and asking his parents, ‘Would you let him make a movie with me?’ For this first feature film of mine about children, I wanted the children to be willing — both the children and their parents. So I used the ad to get them to come to a studio near the Champs-Elysées, where I was doing 16-mm screen tests every Thursday. I saw a number of boys, one of whom was Jean-Pierre Léaud. He was more interesting than all the rest, more intense, more frantic even. He really, really wanted the part, and I think that touched me. I could feel during the shoot that the story improved, that the film became better than the screenplay, thanks to him.” – François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

The screenplay itself was already built around the idea of presenting events honestly from a child’s perspective. As a matter of fact, the project was a personal one for Truffaut.

“All I can say is that nothing in it is invented. What didn’t happen to me personally – happened to people I know – to boys my age and even to people that I had read about in the papers. Nothing in The 400 Blows is pure fiction, then, but neither is the film a wholly autobiographical work…

…As for my method of writing, I started making “script sheets” when I began work on The 400 Blows. School: various gags at school. Home: some gags at home. Street: a few gags in the street. I think everyone works in this way, at least on some films. You certainly do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, in my case, was often based on memories. I realized that you can really exercise your memory where the past is concerned. I had found a class photo, for example, one in the classic pose with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could remember the names of only two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning over a period of several days, I remembered all my classmates’ names, their parents’ jobs, and where everybody lived.

It was around this time that I met Moussy and asked him if he’d like to work with me on the script of The 400 Blows. Since I myself had played hooky quite a bit, all of Antoine’s problems with fake notes, forged signatures, bad report cards—all of these I knew by heart, of course. The movies to which we truants went started at around ten in the morning; there were several theaters in Paris that opened at such an early hour. And their clientele was made up almost exclusively of schoolchildren! But you couldn’t go with your schoolbag, because it would make you look suspicious. So we hid our bags behind the door of the theater. Two of these movie houses faced each other: the Cinéac-Italiens and the New York. Each morning around nine-forty-five, there would be fifty or sixty children waiting outside to get in. And the first theater to open would get all the business because we were anxious to hide. We felt awfully exposed out there in the middle of all that.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

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While shooting the picture, the director occasionally found himself unsure how to approach a scene.

“…Antoine, who told the teacher that his mother had died to avoid having to hand in a note for his absence, and who is found out in the afternoon when his mother comes to the school—decides never to return home. And after school, he talks with his young friend about his plans. This was quite difficult dialogue to do because it wasn’t natural. These words weren’t something a child would normally say; I’m very realistic, and such moments, as originally written, went against the—or my—grain. It was hard, therefore, to find the right stance with which to direct Jean-Pierre Léaud in this scene. For some reason, the situation reminded me of a scene in The Human Beast, where Jean Gabin, as Jacques Lantier, returns at the very end of the movie. He comes back to his locomotive the morning after killing Simone Simon’s character and he has to explain to the other conductor, played by Julien Carette, that he killed this woman. Renoir directed Gabin marvelously here, precisely by using the hallmark of his cinematic style: its utter casualness or offhandedness. Gabin says, ‘It’s horrible. I killed her. I loved her. I’ll never see her again. I’ll never be by her side.’ He said all this very softly, very simply. And I used my memory of Gabin’s performance to direct Léaud, who did his own scene exactly like Gabin’s.

That was a tough scene. It was easier to coach Léaud in the scene where he goes to school without a note after a three-day absence and decides to say his mother died. In this instance there wasn’t any question of someone’s directorial influence on me but only of my own directorial instinct. We don’t know that Antoine has decided to tell this lie, only that he’ll say something big. Of course, he could use a number of ways to say his mother had died. He could be shifty or sad or whatever. I decided the boy should give the impression that he doesn’t want to tell the lie. That he doesn’t dare say it but that the teacher pushes him to do so. The teacher asks, ‘Where’s your note?’ and the child replies, ‘It’s my mother, sir.’ The teacher inquires, ‘Your mother? What about her?’ It’s only because the teacher badgers him that Antoine suddenly decides to fight back and say, ‘She’s dead!’ I told Léaud, ‘You say, ‘She’s dead!’ but you think in your head, ‘She’s dead! What do you say to that?’ He doesn’t say this but he thinks it, and that gives him the exact look and tone of voice I wanted—even the upturned head. There’s a lie you can use only once!

Let me give you another example, returning once again to the issue of directorial influence—this time of someone other than Renoir. If in The 400 Blows, I had filmed the father coming to the classroom and slapping his son after the boy returned to school and said his mother was dead, then I’d have had problems editing because I would have wanted fast action here and could have gotten that only with a lot of cutting. But the rest of the film was just a matter of capturing a lot of situations without an excessive amount of cutting. So I knew I’d have to create the drama in this scene within the frame itself, with little or no cutting, and I thought of Alfred Hitchcock. Otherwise I had no point of reference; I had no idea how to edit the scene in order to create the intensity I wanted. I knew now that I had to show the headmaster, then there’s a knock on the door, the boy senses it’s about him, and next you see the mother. I told the actress Claire Maurier that, instead of scanning the classroom for her son, as might be natural since she had never been to the school before, she was to look right away in the direction of Antoine’s desk. I knew that this would create the dramatic effect I was looking for, and not the reality of her searching for her son’s face amidst a sea of other young faces.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

One of the most discussed scenes in the film is so-called interview scene (a scene where Antoine is interviewed by a psychologist). The scene was shot in an unorthodox manner in order to achieve a greater sense of realism.

“The scene had to be improvised. I began by filming a 16mm version in which I asked Léaud questions, and he replied spontaneously. When we reached this scene in the actual shooting, I decided that what we were getting was inferior to my 16mm trial, which had been so fresh. To regain that freshness, I adopted a peculiar method of working. I told everyone to leave the set except Léaud and the cameraman. Then I read out the scripted psychologist’s questions, asking Léaud to answer on the spot with whatever came into his mind. During post-synchronization, I had my questions read over by the actress who played the psychologist. However, since I wanted a woman with a very soft voice, who by this time was very pregnant and therefore reluctant to be filmed, I had only her voice but not her person, so you hear and don’t see her… Since when I originally filmed the scene, I had banished the script girl and clapper boy from the set, I had no one to mark the precise moments of cutting and thus had to use the relatively imprecise dissolve to mark all connections between the pieces of Léaud ‘s response that I decided to retain.” –François Truffaut (Encountering Directors, September 1 and 3, 1970)

The recorded sound contributed to the scene in other ways as well.

The 400 Blows was shot almost entirely without sound. It was dubbed afterwards, except for one scene, where the psychologist questions Antoine. If this scene got so much notice, it’s not just because Léaud’s performance was so realistic; it’s also because this was the only scene we shot with live sound. The shooting of such a scene, as you might guess, is heavily influenced by television. Although I believe TV is misguided when it attempts to compete with the cinema by trying to handle poetry or fantasy, it’s in its element when it questions someone and lets him explain himself. This scene from The 400 Blows was definitely done with television in mind… Aside from this scene with the psychologist, the dubbing worked rather well, because children are easily dubbed, and Jean-Pierre Léaud is dubbed so well you can’t tell. With the parents in the film, the post-synchronization is not so good.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

Also contributing to the films aura of reality is the location work.

“…We filmed in real locations. We found a tiny apartment on Rue Caulaincourt in Paris, but I was afraid that my cameraman, Henri Decaë, wouldn’t want to film there. I showed it to him and he nonetheless accepted, knowing the numerous problems he would face. For example, when we wanted to show the father, the mother, and the boy around the dinner table, Decaë had to sit on the windowsill, on the sixth floor, with the whole crew waiting outside on the stairs. Things like that happened all the time. I don’t like studios, I have to say; I overwhelmingly prefer to shoot on location.” – François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

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Truffaut’s fondness for location work is in harmony with his tendency to embrace what many might consider problems. He was able to turn problems into artistic statements. The poignant final freeze frame that ends this classic has been discussed at length by countless scholars and critics, but it was surprisingly a matter of necessity.

“The final freeze was an accident. I told Léaud to look into the camera. He did, but quickly turned his eyes away. Since I wanted that brief look he gave me the moment before he turned, I had no choice but to hold on it: hence the freeze.” – François Truffaut (Encountering Directors, September 1 and 3, 1970)

There have been many interpretations of the shot, but everyone seems to acknowledge its power. This effect ends the film on an extremely powerful note and cements the moment in the viewer’s heart and mind.

The entire film works on a very human level and critics and audiences alike have lauded Truffaut’s debut since it was released in 1959. Bosley Crowther’s review was typical of the praise that the film received.

“Let it be noted without contention that the crest of the flow of recent films from the ‘new wave’ of young French directors hit these shores yesterday with the arrival at the Fine Arts Theatre of The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) of Françcois Truffaut.

Not since the 1952 arrival of René Clement’s Forbidden Games, with which this extraordinary little picture of M. Truffaut most interestingly compares, have we had from France a cinema that so brilliantly and strikingly reveals the explosion of a fresh creative talent in the directorial field.

Amazingly, this vigorous effort is the first feature film of M. Truffaut, who had previously been (of all things!) the movie critic for a French magazine. (A short film of his, The Mischief Makers, was shown here at the Little Carnegie some months back.) But, for all his professional inexperience and his youthfulness (27 years), M. Truffaut has here turned out a picture that might be termed a small masterpiece.

The striking distinctions of it are the clarity and honesty with which it presents a moving story of the troubles of a 12-year-old boy. Where previous films on similar subjects have been fatted and fictionalized with all sorts of adult misconceptions and sentimentalities, this is a smashingly convincing demonstration on the level of the boy—cool, firm and realistic, without a false note or a trace of goo.

And yet, in its frank examination of the life of this tough Parisian kid as he moves through the lonely stages of disintegration at home and at school, it offers an overwhelming insight into the emotional confusion of the lad and a truly heartbreaking awareness of his unspoken agonies.

It is said that this film, which M. Truffaut has written, directed and produced, is autobiographical. That may well explain the feeling of intimate occurrence that is packed into all its candid scenes. From the introductory sequence, which takes the viewer in an automobile through middle-class quarters of Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, while a curiously rollicking yet plaintive musical score is played, one gets a profound impression of being personally involved—a hard-by observer, if not participant, in the small joys and sorrows of the boy.

Because of the stunningly literal and factual camera style of M. Truffaut, as well as his clear and sympathetic understanding of the matter he explores, one feels close enough to the parents to cry out to them their cruel mistakes or to shake an obtuse and dull schoolteacher into an awareness of the wrong he does bright boys.

Eagerness makes us want to tell you of countless charming things in this film, little bits of un-pushed communication that spin a fine web of sympathy—little things that tell you volumes about the tough, courageous nature of the boy, his rugged, sometimes ruthless, self-possession and his poignant naïveté. They are subtle, often droll. Also we would like to note a lot about the pathos of the parents and the social incompetence of the kind of school that is here represented and is obviously hated and condemned by M. Truffaut.

But space prohibits expansion, other than to say that the compound is not only moving but also tremendously meaningful. When the lad finally says of his parents, ‘They didn’t always tell the truth,’ there is spoken the most profound summation of the problem of the wayward child today.

Words cannot state simply how fine is Jean-Pierre Léaud in the role of the boy — how implacably deadpanned yet expressive, how apparently relaxed yet tense, how beautifully positive in his movement, like a pint-sized Jean Gabin. Out of this brand new youngster, M. Truffaut has elicited a performance that will live as a delightful, provoking and heartbreaking monument to a boy…

…Here is a picture that encourages an exciting refreshment of faith in films.” –The New York Times (November 17, 1959)

One cannot help but notice Crowther’s comparison of Jean-Pierre Léaud with Jean Gabin (since the director directed the young actor based on one of Gabin’s performances). All of the performances in the film were applauded in the media. The few criticisms that the film received seemed to be related to the technical aspects of the production and these were tempered with enthusiasm for nearly every other aspect of the film.

Critical opinion hasn’t waned over the years. Roger Ebert even included the film in his list of “Great Movies.”

“Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) is one of the most intensely touching stories ever made about a young adolescent. Inspired by Truffaut’s own early life, it shows a resourceful boy growing up in Paris and apparently dashing headlong into a life of crime. Adults see him as a troublemaker. We are allowed to share some of his private moments, as when he lights a candle before a little shrine to Balzac in his bedroom. The film’s famous final shot, a zoom in to a freeze frame, shows him looking directly into the camera. He has just run away from a house of detention, and is on the beach, caught between land and water, between past and future. It is the first time he has seen the sea…

…Little is done in the film for pure effect. Everything adds to the impact of the final shot…” –Chicago Sun Times (August 8, 1999)

Like many of Ebert’s reviews, most of the text is devoted to a synopsis of the film’s story. His five star rating offers the clearest statement of his feelings towards the classic. Sometimes it is enough to say that a film is essential and leave it at that.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray and DVD discs are housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The iconic artwork that decorates the case should please any cinema enthusiast. An added bonus is the wonderful fold out pamphlet featuring photos from the film and an essay by Annette Insdorf. The animated menus are equally attractive and feature the young Antoine running away from reform school.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s 1080p transfer is simply beautiful. Blu-ray discs have the ability to make black and white films look truly amazing and this disc provides adequate proof of this. Blacks are rich and whites are clean and natural here, and contrast levels seem to be perfect. Clarity and detail are impressive and showcase textures that have not been seen on previous home video formats. There seems to be little to no perceivable DNR manipulation present, which means that Criterion’s restoration efforts were meticulously handled. There is a layer of grain that beautifully mirrors its celluloid source while providing a more cinematic experience. This seems to accurately reflect the film’s source elements and the problems one might find in the transfer are likely evident in the source.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The uncompressed French Mono track is impressive and seems to have benefited from Criterion’s restoration efforts. Dialogue is consistently clear and the music sounds full and clear with little to no distortion. The included English subtitles seem to provide a good translation of the French dialogue. There is very little here to complain about.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Brian Stonehill

In this highly informative commentary, Brian Stonehill discusses the film from a number of angles, including the cultural impact that the film had upon its release and where the film stands in the context of his career. The film is somewhat dry and scholarly, which should please some and disappoint others. However, those who listen will be rewarded.

Audio Commentary by Robert Lachenay

Robert Lachenay’s commentary is more personal and anecdotal in nature. While Lachenay speaks in his native language, English subtitles are available for those of us who need them. The more personal approach makes for an entertaining track that is rich in information and will increase the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of this classic film.

Rare Audition Footage of Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick Auffay, and Richard Kanayan – (6:24) – (HD)

Criterion has including some priceless 16mm audition footage. This is not only valuable as an entertaining curiosity, but has the added value of shedding light on Truffaut’s approach to choosing his actors.

Newsreel Footage of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Cannes – (5:51) – (HD)

This highly enjoyable footage of Léaud enjoying the spotlight at Cannes gives viewers a glimpse of how well the film was received.

Cineastes de Notre Temps (1965) – (22:27) – (HD)

Truffaut, Léaud, Remy Albert, and Claude de Givray discuss Truffaut and his success, often focusing on The 400 Blows. The program was produced for French television and includes English subtitles. This relatively brief program is rich in information and is a welcome and valuable addition to the disc.

Cinépanorama Interview – (6:51) – (HD)

François Truffaut answers questions about The 400 Blows after the film was awarded by the New York Film Critics. The interview is quite brief but offers some interesting information. It is a nice companion piece to the Cineastes de Notre Temps program.

Theatrical Trailer – (3:47)

This Theatrical Trailer is interesting mostly because it is a trailer for a foreign film and this sets it apart from other trailers. It is a welcome addition to this wonderful set.

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Final Words:

The 400 Blows is one of the cinema’s essential classics and Criterion has given the film a release worthy of the title. The sound and picture transfers are both wonderful and the supplementary material is illuminating and enjoyable. Who could ask for anything more?

Review by: Devon Powell

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Additional Note:

François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock actually discussed The 400 Blows during their legendary interview, but this part of the conversation was not included in the published book. The audio from this part of their conversation can be heard here (skip to 11.37):

The Criterion Collection’s The 400 Blows  page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/151-the-400-blows