Blu-ray Review: The Paradine Case

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: May 30, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:54:16

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1556 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.92 Mbps

Notes: This is the film’s North American Blu-ray debut.

Title

“Robert Hichens [who wrote the original novel] also wrote ‘The Garden of Allah,’ ‘Bella Donna,’ and many other novels; he was famous in the early part of this century… Let’s go over some of the apparent flaws of that picture.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

This quote from Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary interview with François Truffaut reveals an underlying dissatisfaction with The Paradine Case that probably has as much to do with the painful experience that he had making the film for David O. Selznick than with any perceived deficiencies in the finished film. The project was an assignment that Hitchcock chose out of a number of possible properties for the simple reason that it was the least objectionable. To put it simply, he owed the producer one more film before he could escape what he saw as the producer’s tyranny. Luckily, the director found certain aspects of the story appealing.

“What interested me in this picture was to take a person like Mrs. Paradine, to put her in the hands of the police, to have her submit to all their formalities, and to say to her maid, as she was leaving her home between the two inspectors, ‘I don’t think I shall be back for dinner.’ And then to show her spending the night in a cell, from which, in fact, she will never emerge. There is an echo of that situation in The Wrong Man. It may be an expression of my own fear, but I’ve always felt the drama of a situation in which a normal person is suddenly deprived of freedom and incarcerated with hardened criminals. There’s nothing to it when a habitual law breaker, like a drunk, is involved, but I am intrigued by the contrast in shading when it happens to a person of a certain social standing.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Such material relies heavily on appropriate casting which was an element of the film’s production that Hitchcock found particularly problematic.

“First of all, I don’t think that Gregory Peck can properly represent an English lawyer… I would have brought in Laurence Olivier. I also considered Ronald Coleman for the part. For a while, we hoped we might get Greta Garbo to make her comeback in the role of the wife. But the worst flaw in casting was assigning Lois Jourdan to play the groom. After all, the story of The Paradine Case is about the degradation of a gentleman who becomes enamored of his client, a woman who is not only a murderess but also a nymphomaniac. And that degradation reaches its climactic point when he’s forced to confront the heroine with one of her lovers, who is a groom. But that groom should have been a manure-smelling stable hand, a man who really reeked of manure… [Selznick] had Louis Jourdan under contract, so I had to use them, and this miscasting was very detrimental to the story.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The director claimed that Robert Newton would’ve made a much better André Latour, and one can immediately understand how his casting would change the dynamic. What’s more, it is impossible not to agree that Peck isn’t particularly believable as an English solicitor. More interesting, however, is a point that sometimes becomes confused in various writings about the film. Readers should pay close attention to the fact that Hitchcock mentions that he wanted Greta Garbo to portray Gay Keane (Anthony Keane’s wife)—and not Mrs. Paradine. Books, articles, and essays are split as to which role she was offered, and it seems like the confusion lies in the fact that MGM had tried in vain to bring the Robert Hichens novel to the screen in the early to mid-thirties as a vehicle for Greta Garbo. Greta Garbo was the biggest star in the Hollywood galaxy at that time, and she would have no doubt been offered the role of Mrs. Paradine at this point in her career. It seems reasonable that this is the source of confusion. When Selznick dusted off the property over a decade later as a potential project for Alfred Hitchcock, Garbo had retired from acting and was a decade older. On this occasion, she would’ve been more appropriate for the role of the wife. In other words, she had been offered both roles at two very different stages in her life. Of course, this is conjecture based on everything that is currently known about the production.

In actuality, Hitchcock preferred to cast Ingrid Bergman in the role of Mrs. Paradine (and Selznick probably would’ve agreed). Bergman had a special fondness for Hitchcock, but she had grown to bitterly resent Selznick and didn’t want to work with the producer again. It was up to Selznick to manufacture another Bergman and Alida Valli was the product of those efforts. Valli actually does a rather good job in her role as does the star-studded supporting cast.

As the film’s casting was already being compromised by Selznick’s “tradition of quality” meddling, Hitchcock and Alma were busy working on a draft of the screenplay so that the producer could see how much the film would cost. Luckily, the Hitchcock team had eighteen inches of abandoned screenplays that were written a decade earlier to guide them. In fact, Patrick McGilligan suggests that their draft was essentially a 195-page amalgam of these previous scripts. In fact, in Hitchcock’s Notebooks, Dan Auiler provides a detailed chart chronicling the evolution of the script, and it suggests that the final draft of the screenplay maintains much that was in the original Hitchcock draft. However, other writers were instrumental in bringing The Paradine Case to the screen.

“…I recommended James Bridie, a Scottish playwright who had a big reputation in England as well. He was in his early sixties and a very independent man. Selznick brought him to New York, but when he wasn’t met at the airport, he took the first plane back to London. He worked on the script in England and sent it over to us; the arrangement wasn’t too successful. But Selznick wanted to do the adaptation himself; that’s the way he did things in those days. He would write a scene and send it down to the set every other day—a very poor method of work.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Hitchcock doesn’t mention that Ben Hecht made some minor contributions to the script before Selznick took over, but it seems more than likely that his contributions were undone by Selznick’s insistence on adding paragraphs upon paragraphs of constant decorative dialogue directly from the original novel.

“The Selznick rewrite inevitably slowed production. Hitchcock would ‘see those blue pages in the morning and he would just retreat to his bungalow,’ Gregory Peck recalled; ‘in all fairness to Hitch, the dialogue was invariably worse, not better.’ As the actors memorized their new lines, Hitchcock revised his prearranged setups to accommodate the changes. Meanwhile, a studio car sped the rewrite, four and five pages daily, to Joe Breen; only after the censorship office approved the alterations could Hitchcock begin. ‘So very often we didn’t shoot anything until eleven o’clock or twelve o’clock or even until after lunch,’ Peck said. Hitchcock naturally resented the violation of his sense of order. Moreover, the tension between producer and director cause an undesirable imbalance between director and actors, director and crew.” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

To make a long story short (something that Selznick rarely did), the script had a lot of unfortunate issues that were only compounded by the Selznick rewrites. The source material was already rather convoluted and efforts should’ve been made to simplify the complicated murder plot that served as the backstory. Hitchcock admitted in later interviews that he “was never too clear as to how the murder was committed, because it was complicated by people crossing from one room to another, up and down a corridor. I never truly understood the geography of that house or how she managed the killing.

Instead of allowing such things to overwhelm him, Hitchcock concentrated on elements of the production that were of greater interest to him—especially those concerning the Old Baily sequence.

“In London, Hitchcock and Ahern asked a prominent judicial wig and robe maker to add Paradine to his case load. Hitchcock also attended a session at Old Bailey, sketchbook in hand. He intended to rebuild the most famous of English criminal courtrooms and, like Selznick, insisted on accuracy; he even persuaded the Keeper to permit a camera crew to film the vacant court. Talking with reporters later, Hitchcock emphasized the preparation that he would bring to the picture. ‘As I watched the judge,’ the director said, ‘I even knew what lens I would use to photograph him.’ Hitchcock projected imperturbability, utter confidence, [and] supreme knowledge.” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

Unfortunately, some of the verisimilitudes that Hitchcock tried to work into the film were undone by Selznick’s insistence upon glamor at the expense of realism.

“Selznick wanted both Valli and Ann Todd smartly dressed in The Paradine Case. Hitchcock cautioned Selznick that English audiences would laugh at Mrs. Paradine if she wore clothes obviously beyond the means of a wealthy English woman in postwar London; the producer snapped that he would not drape Valli in suits that a moviegoer could find ‘in Dubuque and in Dallas.’ Hitchcock conceded the point, partially because he shunned confrontation. When Selznick chose an enormous brocade dressing gown for Ann Todd, which she deemed inappropriate, the director suggested that she take up her dissatisfaction with the producer.

‘I marched into Selznick’s office,’ Todd later recalled. ‘Mr. Selznick, I don’t think I want to wear this dressing gown; a husband and wife in their bedroom alone. I wouldn’t be wearing a brocade.’ ‘Yeah, you would.’ ‘Well, I don’t like it and you brought me all these thousands of miles from England and told me, “We’re very real with our films.”’ So he said, ‘People in Arizona have got to know you’re rich.’” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

The producer’s insistence on a glamor also compromised Hitchcock’s intended chiaroscuro lighting designs for the film. For the director, the proper mood was more important than presenting an actor in a flattering manner.

“Director of photography Lee Garmes felt caught between Selznick’s increasing involvement in bringing glamor to the picture and Hitchcock’s demand for harsh tonality. Although in earlier years Selznick let the director guide the cinematographer, the producer himself had written pointedly to Garmes about elements of footage that needed correction. He paid fastidious attention to his nascent stars. Striving for a chiaroscuro effect, Hitchcock ordered Jourdan photographed in shadow (Latour being a shadowy figure); Selznick ran the rushes and ordered the Frenchman brought into the light, especially so that filmgoers could see his best feature, his eyes. Garmes tried to strike a middle path but succeeded only in bringing both Selznick and Hitchcock down on him. In a memorandum to the director about the flat photography, Selznick wrote:

‘There is no shading or attempt to photograph Jourdan interestingly as there was the first few days, and if we’re not careful this will be true of Valli. In filling in light for the eyes, [Garmes] failed at his objective and lost what he had before. I can’t figure out for the life of me why he can’t give us eyes that are not black sockets that give us nothing.’

The problem may have been that Selznick perceived Garmes as Hitchcock’s man, while Hitchcock perceived him as Selznick’s man.” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

The producer and director were constantly at odds as their agendas and creative visions clashed, resulting in scenes having to be re-shot to the producer’s specifications (often with yet another re-write including dialogue that was even more ornate than the previous pages). Ann Todd remembered one particularly difficult sequence that never made it into the final picture in its original form.

“In one scene, as Ann Todd recalled in her memoirs, a camera tracked her smoothly as she entered the front door of her house, called up to her husband (Peck), doffed her coat and kicked off her shoes, ran upstairs two flights, entered her sitting room, and made a long telephone call, all the time speaking nonstop to Peck, ‘who was off-screen with his feet up reading his few lines.’ Thereupon—with the camera still rolling—Peck entered the frame, and ‘we had a long and elaborate love scene to play…’

‘We had to film all [of] this thirty-five times! First the front door kept sticking,’ the actress recalled, ‘then there were many difficulties with the camera crane that had to follow me all the way up the stairs, then the trouble for camera, microphone, etc., getting through the doors—either I went too quickly or the camera was too slow, and various people on the set had to crouch on the floor to pull away the furniture as the camera and I passed. Last of all, on the twentieth take, I started to forget my lines and we had to go right back to beginning again. I think it was a marvelous notion of Hitchcock’s because it gave [a] flow of continuity to the scenes. Unfortunately, it was mechanically very nearly impossible to hold for so long.’

Also, unfortunately, the producer hated it. After seeing the dailies, Selznick stormed down to the set screaming, ‘we’re not doing a theater piece!’ The Hitchcockian approach was ordered re-shot ‘conventionally.’ For this and other attempts at bravura camera work, the producer took pains to curtail Hitchcock’s vision during filming and editing.” —Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

The director was obviously already experimenting with longer takes—an approach that he exercised exclusively in Rope and rather liberally in Under Capricorn. In fact, other scenes that were similarly complicated also went unused.

“Hitchcock’s favorite effect, he told Charles Higham, had been planned since the inception of The Paradine Case. Keane (Peck) and Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) walk toward the camera as they enter Lincoln’s Inn, part of the venerable fourteenth century London Law complex. The two are seen entering the building, closing the door, walking up the stairs, turning a corner, heading along a landing into an office, and then continuing into the office, all without a single cut. It was one of Hitchcock’s signature composites, using background projection and a treadmill, elaborately planned and prepared in advance by his second unit in London. Opposed to the long take, and oblivious [to] the significance of Lincoln’s Inn, Selznick deleted the shot. Indeed, Selznick threw out so much of Hitchcock’s second unit footage that any sense of English atmosphere the film might have boasted was lost.” —Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

The film might have lost its English atmosphere, but it still maintains a few brilliant directorial touches. The most famous shot in the film is one that the director was especially fond of discussing.

“There is an interesting shot in the courtroom when Louis Jourdan is called in to give evidence; he comes into the courtroom and must pass behind Alida Valli. She’s turning her back to him, but we wanted to give the impression that she senses his presence—not that she guesses he’s there—that she actually can feel him behind her as if she could smell him. We had to do that in two takes. The camera is on Alida Valli’s face. And in the background you see Louis Jourdan coming down to the witness box. First, I photographed the scene without her; the camera panned him all around, at a two-hundred-degree turn, from the door to the witness box. Then, I photographed her in the foreground; we sat her in front of the screen, on a twisting stool, so that we might have the revolving effect, and when the camera went off her to go back to Louis Jourdan, she was pulled off the screen. It was quite complicated, but it was very interesting to work that out.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Production finally wrapped on March 13, 1947, after 92 days of soul-crushing production—and thanks to Hitchcock’s multi-camera approach to shooting the courtroom scenes (there were sometimes as many as four cameras shooting different aspects of the scene at one time), the production came in $100,000 under budget. Unfortunately, this bit of good luck and saved money was squandered by Selznick’s insistence on numerous retakes after Hitchcock turned in his rough cut of the film later that April.

Interestingly, Bernard Herrmann was considered to score the picture, but this job would eventually be handed to Franz Waxman. Waxman provided the sort of syrupy score that Selznick adored and Hitchcock loathed—another excuse for the director to be unhappy with the final result.

It was now time for Selznick to put his new Hitchcock film out into the world and he spared no expense. The film was given an aggressive advertising campaign that exceeded the publicity budget of any other Selznick release. The campaign brought people to the box-office, but critical reception of the film was mixed. The general consensus about the film was that its drama was limited by the courtroom setting but that Hitchcock adequately met the challenge and elevated the less than satisfactory material. Praise was often somewhat unenthusiastic and seemed to be given grudgingly. It is interesting, however, to report that the American critics responded enthusiastically to Gregory Peck’s performance and didn’t seem to notice that the actor was horrendously miscast in the role. One critic went as far as to say that it was “one of the most successful of his characterizations.

Most of the reviews concentrated on Alfred Hitchcock’s direction while sometimes—as in a review published in Harrison’s Reports—giving him more praise than he really deserved.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s superb directorial skill, the powerful dramatic material, and the superior performances by the entire cast make The Paradine Case one of the most fascinating murder trial melodramas ever produced. It should turn out to be a foremost box-office attraction, not only because of the players’ drawing power but also because it is a gripping entertainment from start to finish…” –Harrison’s Reports (January 03, 1948)

Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times was more reserved in his praise of the director and quick to criticize Selznick’s script.

“With all the skill in presentation for which both gentlemen are famed, David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock have put upon the screen a slick piece of static entertainment in their garrulous The Paradine Case. Call it a mystery melodrama—although that doesn’t fully wrap it up… Call it a courtroom tragi-romance or a husband-wife problem play. Call it, indeed, a social satire and you won’t be entirely wrong. For it’s all of these things rolled together in one fitfully intriguing tale, smoothly told through a cultivated camera…

…It isn’t a significant story, not by any means, except in so far as it hints at the old Adam that lies deep in men, beneath all their polished manners and solid virtues and barristers’ wigs. And it isn’t a too-well-written story—for the purposes of cinema, that is—in the script derived by Mr. Selznick from Robert Hichens’ fifteen-year-old fiction book… But, as usually happens, Mr. Hitchcock has made the best of a difficult script and has got as much tension in a courtroom as most directors could get in a frontier fort. His camera has a way of behaving like an accomplished trial lawyer, droning quietly along with routine matters and suddenly hitting you dramatically in the face. And out of his cast of brilliant actors, he has pulled some distinguished work… Needless to say, the picture’s décor has a rich, enameled, David O. Selznick look.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, January 09, 1948)

A review published in Film Bulletin follows suit and offers reserved praise for the director while criticizing the producer’s indulgent script. More interestingly, however, is the enthusiastic praise given to Peck’s performance.

“David O. Selznick’s latest production, The Paradine Case, while not a wholly satisfying film, spells good box-office because of its top-flight cast (including a couple of highly-publicized Selznick discoveries), the renown of director Hitchcock, and a typically smooth [and] glossy DOS veneer. It has the pull and it offers above-average entertainment for all types of audiences. As the British barrister who becomes infatuated with the women he is defending on a murder charge, Gregory Peck again demonstrates the wide range of his talents. He excels his performance in Gentleman’s Agreement

…Selznick’s screenplay is somewhat static and a bit overlong. Limited as he is, Alfred Hitchcock, in his inimitable style, has squeezed considerable suspense and movement out of the tale by his unique effects and fluid camera. Lee Garmes’ photography is superior, and recording by Richard Van Hessen and music by Franz Waxman are all that could be desired.” -Film Bulletin (January 19, 1948)

One imagines that the American critics weren’t as sensitive to Peck’s inappropriate casting as were the critics in Britain when the film was released in that country a year later (after Rope). This review for The Times seems to support this theory as it directly criticizes Peck’s casting.

 “Mr. Alfred Hitchcock in Rope asserted himself by the paradoxical method of withdrawing his immediate influence and allowing the camera to photograph the play without interruption; in The Paradine Case he is once more content to remain in the background and relies on a faithful transcription, of criminal proceedings at the Old Bailey to provide sufficient excitement and suspense. The Paradine Case runs for 110 minutes, and for what seems nearly half of that time the film is, as it were, a report of a trial… The film deserves the greatest credit for the care it brings to the business of conveying the feel and atmosphere of an English murder trial… Mr. Peck is never quite convincing and Valli is content simply to exist and allow her loveliness to act her part for her. Miss Ann Todd [has an] adequate command of the domestic interludes, and the film for long stretches at a time is mercifully free of all musical accompaniment. A moderate Hitchcock; no more, no less.” -The Times (January 17, 1949)

Some British critics never quite forgave Hitchcock for exporting his talents to Hollywood, and their reviews for his American films sometimes focused on their perceived degradation of the director’s work since moving to America instead of on the film in question. Such a review was published in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. It was titled, “Has ‘Hitch’ Lost His Touch?

“Through a series of glossy popular films, Hitchcock has sunk his sense of real cinema in his efforts to cater for popular taste. He has produced faulty films and the greatest of these is The Paradine Case. There was little or no suspense and no relation to reality in a film which looked as if it had been produced by Cecil B. de Mille [and] not our Hitchcock.” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette (April 11, 1949)

It is interesting how what would eventually amount to four perceived failures in a row can cause certain critics (like the hack employed by the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette) to turn on a director. Most of the director’s best films were still ahead of him. Today, The Paradine Case is usually seen as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s rare misfires—an overwritten and verbose soap opera. However, there are fans among us who will declare the film an underrated and misunderstood work with interesting thematic material that looks forward to such later masterworks as Vertigo. Both assessments are absolutely accurate.

SS01

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 1949 French Re-release poster design (with some slight alterations) while the second side showcases the original American one-sheet. It is surprising to find that we actually prefer the French Re-release design better than the American one sheet—which actually looks forward to the terrible “faces of the stars” concept that has debased poster and video art for years. One might argue that the French design could also be criticized for doing this, but it at least does it in a more interesting manner than is usual.

Blu-ray Cover (B)

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 vintage poster artwork (albeit different artwork than is utilized for the two covers). Music from the film’s opening credit sequence can be heard underneath this image. The result is aesthetically pleasing.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The image transfer of The Paradine Case is something of a mixed bag. It is an improvement over the previous DVD releases, but there are too many inconsistencies to make any blanket statements about various aspects of the image. It can exhibit incredible sharpness and wonderful gradients between the various shades present in the film’s often interesting cinematography. Blacks can be incredibly rich as the result of the sometimes excellent contrast. However, the quality of all of these elements is somewhat erratic. Scratches, dust, dirt, hairs and other anomalies occasionally appear throughout the film, but these never become distracting. There is a reasonably well resolved layer of grain that adds a filmic texture to the proceedings and the film looks beautiful in motion.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Mono DTS-HD Master Audio mix is a decent reflection of the film’s original audio and is well served by the lossless transfer. There are no noticeable anomalies (such as distortion, hiss, hum, crackle, or dropouts) and the various elements are clearly rendered for a film of this vintage. Some viewers might wish for a more dynamic sonic experience, but purists will be thrilled to experience the intended original mix in an HD environment.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary with Stephen Rebello & Bill Krohn

Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn give a generally informative blend of theoretical analysis and “behind the scenes” context to the film that covers a wide variety of relevant topics. The most interesting of these usually involve the troubled creative struggle that resulted from a producer and a director at cross purposes. Both tend to agree that the physical evidence and information that is known about this struggle suggest that much of the producer’s meddling was at the expense of the film. There are a few interesting tidbits of information that will be of special interest to anyone coming to the track without any prior knowledge about the film’s backstory. Particularly revelatory will be the comments made about some of the scenes deleted from the final film. The commentary is surprisingly affectionate as both Rebello and Krohn are of the opinion that the film deserves reevaluation despite its flaws.

Isolated Music and Effect Track

This feature will please anyone who admires Franz Waxman’s score for The Paradine Case as viewers can now experience it free from the distraction of other elements of the soundtrack. It certainly illuminates Waxman’s contribution to the film be it good, bad, or indifferent.

Interviews with Cecelia Peck and Carey Peck – (08:36)

It was a nice surprise to find this new featurette included on the disc. This short segment finds Cecelia and Carey Peck discussing The Paradine Case and their father’s work on the film as well as his relationship with Alfred Hitchcock. It isn’t a particularly frank discussion as neither mentions that Peck named the film as the one that he would like to burn. They instead talk generally about the qualities that their father brought to the film and the trouble that Hitchcock had during the production due to Selznick’s interference.

François Truffaut Interviews Alfred Hitchcock (Audio) – (12:57)

These excerpts from François Truffaut’s landmark interview with Hitchcock are illustrated by stills and marketing materials for the film. They make an extremely fascinating listening experience. In fact, this may be the disc’s strongest supplemental feature as it finds the director speaking frankly about the film’s weaknesses without completely disregarding the film. The included excerpts are rightly restricted to portions of the interview that have a bearing on The Paradine Case.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock (Audio) – (15:57)

The excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich begin with the two men discussing The Paradine Case but eventually trail off into other more general territory. Those portions regarding the film cover some of the same territory as the Truffaut interview but in less detail. It is nice to have this featured on the disc, but it might prove a slight disappointment to anyone expecting it to live up to the previous Truffaut segment.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (01:43)

This might be the first time that the film’s trailer has been included on a home video release. It is interesting to see how this rare misfire was marketed. One can’t say that it is particularly interesting as it falls in line with other trailers during that period, but it is good to have it included for posterity if for no other reason.

1949 Lux Radio Broadcast (Audio) – (56:37)

Vintage radio adaptations are always interesting and this one is no exception. This particular adaptation fairs better than similar adaptations of Hitchcock films due to Selznick’s loquacious screenplay. The Paradine Case is a rare instance of Hitchcock’s visual treatment being almost secondary to the dialogue, and this radio adaptation only serves to highlight this fact. Interestingly, Joseph Cotton’s casting as Anthony Keane is even more problematic than Gregory Peck’s casting in the film. Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan both reprise their roles.

Restoration Comparison – (01:27)

Kino Lorber also provides a restoration comparison that highlights the film’s digital restoration for this release.

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Final Words:

Alfred Hitchcock’s final picture for David O. Selznick is decidedly more a Selznick production than a Hitchcock picture. It is undoubtedly one of the director’s rare misfires but it is an extremely interesting misfire that is worthy of repeated viewings.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, January 03, 1948)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, January 09, 1948)

Staff Writer (Film Bulletin, January 19, 1948)

Staff Writer (What the Newspaper Critics Say about New Films: The Paradine Case, Film Bulletin, January 19, 1948)

Staff Writer (Gloucestershire Echo, January 14, 1949)

Staff Writer (The Times, January 17, 1949)

Staff Writer (Has Hitch Lost His Touch, Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, April 11, 1949)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

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

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

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

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

 

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Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Psycho IV: The Beginning

Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Shout Factory

Release Date: August 23, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 96 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.78:1

Notes: This title is available in various DVD editions of the film from Universal Pictures.

Title

“It was a great burden of responsibility to carry on the tale first told by one of cinema’s greatest artists, and I was a very young filmmaker, in age as well as in experience, who had a lot to prove.  I was more worried about not f**king it up than anything else.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

Perhaps the mysteries of Norman’s past should remain a mystery. One has to wonder what Alfred Hitchcock would have thought about the three Psycho sequels. The world will never have a definitive answer to this question, but it can be said with some authority that his writing collaborator on Psycho, Joseph Stefano, was never terribly fond of the first two sequels.

Those films changed Norman from a sensitive and pitiful – if not sympathetic – villain into a laughable figure… Psycho II and III say, in effect, there’s no way to survive with a psychological problem. If you’ve got it, the law can keep you locked up because there’s no chance for cure. I thought, ‘Vile!’ I don’t think l need that message. It’s just not true.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Stefano’s disdain for Psycho’s first two sequels might come as a surprise to anyone who remembers that the screenwriter provided the screenplay for Psycho IV: The Beginning. It becomes all the more amazing when one considers that the film was made for television (originally airing on Showtime on November 10, 1990). To say that the film wasn’t a prestige project would be an understatement. After the critical and box-office failure of Psycho III, it is surprising that Universal even bothered with the film at all.

30 years earlier, while Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stephano were preparing the screenplay for Psycho, they would often discuss Norman’s backstory. The two men threw around a number of possibilities as to what might have happened in that old Victorian house, and these conversations formed the impetus for the Psycho IV screenplay.

“Hitch was interested in what I had to offer, like one of my background ideas for Norman’s upbringing. I imagined a scene—which people will recognize from Psycho IV –where Norman is horsing around with his mother. When she notices he has an erection, she becomes rabid. To teach him once and for all that’s he’s not supposed to do that, she forces him to put on a dress, smears lipstick on his face, and locks him in a closet. The incident had no place in Psycho, but I told Hitch anyway, and he was fascinated—very curious about things of that nature, Freudian psychological backgrounds.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Erection Scene

The accidental erection scene in Psycho IV: The Beginning: Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey portray Norman and Norma Bates.

The third sequel was meant to represent a tonal change for the series. The previous sequels could be described as “over the top,” and everyone involved wanted the film’s prequel to have a more sober tone.

“In the run of the making of the film sequels, it seemed that the treatment of Norman, after all the years of his iconography and being spoofed and satirized, it seemed that there was a tendency to lean towards ‘camp’ in portraying him in the sequels, and I wanted to bring that down, and give him the complexity and danger that his character possessed in Hitchcock’s original.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

It is arguable as to whether Garris succeeded in his efforts to tone down the camp elements that featured in the previous sequels, but it seems that Joseph Stephano had similar notions while writing the script. He even went out of his way to avoid mentioning the events that occurred in the two previous sequels in any real detail.

“Gearing up for Psycho IV, I decided to ignore the two sequels – like the business in II about Norman’s mother. Instead, I based my script on background material I’d had in my mind for over 30 years—information that couldn’t be in the original without giving the ending away. I wrote five drafts, making changes because of time and budget constraints. Thanks to the director, Mick Garris, my vision was on screen almost intact.

In Psycho IV, the time is five years after III, and Norman is out of the hospital. He’s a married man, and he’s finally learned how to love somebody and have natural sex without killing his lover. But when Norman’s wife becomes pregnant, there’s a crisis. His fear that his illness will be passed on to a new generation prompts him to call into a radio talk show focusing on matricide. As the film progresses, he resorts to the only neurosis that ever worked for him.

The question might be asked why, if Norman is cured, does he revert back to his old ways? I think he explains when he says, ‘I’m cured, as I’ll ever be, but I’m still me.’ No matter how cured we are of certain psychoses, we revert when the chips are down. The film couldn’t just be about Norman getting cured. It had to be about that cure coming undone…

…So far, audience reaction has been good, and I’m pleased. With the exception of Variety, which called the movie ‘Psycho-babble,’ the reviews have also been strong. Norman Bates has a crisis, but the resolution leaves everyone glowing – which is not the reaction you’d expect after seeing a Psycho movie.

People may be surprised at the ending I chose, but if you’ve done your homework, I think it will seem natural. Any other way would have been preposterous – just one more dreadful Psycho sequel. It will end as life would have it end.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Stephano seemed satisfied with the finished product, but it must be said that Variety wasn’t the film’s only critic. Many people disliked that the film ignored the two previous sequels and considered these omissions glitches in the series’ continuity. This could easily be argued either way. However, it must be said that the two previous films were subtly alluded to in the film’s dialogue: “After the last murder four years ago—umm—murders, plural…

Some might question whether it is feasible that Norman Bates could be rehabilitated in four or five short years, but one might evade such logistical speedbumps by telling themselves that he was released under his wife’s care—especially considering the fact that she is a psychiatrist. That Norman’s aunt, Emma Spool, isn’t mentioned doesn’t represent any real glitch in continuity. After all, she was absent during Norman’s formative years. There might be an issue with the death of Norman’s father—unless the bee stings said to have killed him were caused by Spool. It is too bad that these stings were shown on the corpse, because the bee sting story could have also been a subterfuge meant to keep an unsettling and violent reality from affecting the very young Norman. One does wish to give a film the benefit of the doubt. Then again, all of this is probably an exercise in futility, because one could simply choose to experience the film as a direct sequel to Psycho. Alternative timelines are actually rather common among horror sequels.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

“All you really have to know is that Norman once again got hauled off to the rubber Ramada and, as he says, he wanted to be either executed or locked away forever so that he would never hurt anybody again, because Norman is, at heart, a benevolent soul with a dark side. But Norman’s conscious mind is always on the positive things in life. So once again he’s in and once again he’s out.” -Anthony Perkins (The Washington Post, November 04, 1990)

There are other problematic elements in Joseph Stephano’s script that are much more unfortunate, because they could very well alter one’s understanding of Hitchcock’s original film. The first issue concerns the nature of Norma Bates. Stephano has written her as a one-dimensional monster, and this becomes the film’s fatal flaw. It is true that we see fleeting moments of kindness, but these seem to be quite few in number. This represents a missed opportunity, because one wishes for a more dynamic and multilayered personality than what we see here. Norma’s character seems to be more complex and interesting as portrayed by Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel. (Although, this series comes with a list of its own issues.) It is wrong to assume that Norman’s projection of a shrewish personality upon his mother is an accurate reflection of her character. This shrewishness was more likely born out of his own anger towards himself and the insane jealousy that he felt. Frankly, it is surprising to find that Stephano didn’t recognize this.

The other problem concerns the actions of Connie Bates (Donna Mitchell). Why would an established psychiatrist risk Norman’s mental health—and her own safety—by actively trying to conceive a child without his knowledge? It is established that she knew the extent of Norman’s anxieties about the issue, and she should know that betraying his trust could do irrefutable damage. One will admit that Connie isn’t one of the more developed characters in his screenplay, but it is clear that her character isn’t supposed to be a devious personality. This part of the film seems forced and underdeveloped, and the blame rests largely on Stephano’s shoulders.

Luckily, the script issues are overshadowed by a very powerful character named Norman Bates. It is incredibly difficult not to be drawn into this unusual but sympathetic character’s universe. What’s more, Mick Garris enhances our experience of this unique universe with a number of interesting stylistic choices.

“I wanted the colors to be highly saturated, to set up an immediate contrast to the Hitchcock original.  I wanted to set it apart right up front, without dismissing the connection with the characters, the house, the motel, and all of the iconic imagery that we wanted to emphasize… It was important that the radio station be very contained, almost claustrophobic and modern, with the blue light emphasizing the technological world of today.  Norman’s home was warmer, with a glow of nostalgia.  But there would be shocking intrusions of red, as when Norman cuts himself and bleeds into the sink. In the flashbacks especially, I wanted the colors to be heightened, almost a historical Technicolor richness to it, as I feel our memories are more colorful than reality.

There also needed to be a real sense of visual exaggeration.  And I wanted to place Norman into his own flashbacks at his own age at the time and as he was as he relived them, to place the modern Norman into his own memories.  That was a lot of fun. I just really wanted to give the language of cinema a real workout, which is not easy when it was shot in 24 days for television.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

While his direction is never as accomplished as Alfred Hitchcock’s, Garris does manage to create interest (even if suspense is lacking). It is also nice to see that he brought an element back to the film that was sorely missed in the two previous sequels.

“I didn’t know why no one had used one of the greatest scores ever in the preceding two sequels with the unbelievable Bernard Herrmann score for Psycho, which he described as black and white music because there was no horns and percussion, just strings. So, we actually orchestrated that music.” –Mick Garris (Trailers from Hell, 2013)

These Bernard Herrmann themes elevate the film and give it a vitality that surpasses one’s expectations—as long as those expectations are reasonable. Psycho IV: The Beginning isn’t much more than an interesting footnote about the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s enduring classic. It contains a number of strong performances, and there are many good ideas scattered throughout the film. Unfortunately, these ideas never seem to congeal, and the end result feels like a missed opportunity. Alfred Hitchcock’s influence upon Joseph Stephano’s screenplay for the original Psycho was paramount, and his absence here is sorely felt.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with a slightly altered version of the same one sheet artwork has been used since the film’s original broadcast.

The menu also utilizes this artwork and is accompanied by an iconic Bernard Herrmann theme that we all know and love. The overall result isn’t particularly special, but it is a reasonably attractive presentation.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is surprising to find that Shout Factory’s transfer of Psycho IV: The Beginning exhibits a reasonably high level of detail. One can see textures and facial pores, and clarity is also nicely rendered. Television films rarely look this good (even in high definition). Black levels are accurate and do not crush important details that hide in the darker recesses of the screen. One doesn’t wish to say that colors are natural here, but they do seem to be accurately represented. The lighting design is rather dramatic to say the least. It is nice to see them vividly represented here. Skin tones certainly look natural when they are lit naturally. There is a healthy layer of film grain to help the viewer forget the film’s television origins, and it is nice to see that it hasn’t been scrubbed clean. Nothing in the way of noise or digital artifacts seem to distract from what looks like a very solid transfer. It never approaches perfection, but this particular title isn’t likely to see a better 1080p transfer.

It should also be mentioned that the film was composed for widescreen, because it would receive a very limited theatrical release after its initial Showtime broadcast. Mick Garris states in the included commentary that he is happy to see that the film is presented in the widescreen format on this disc, so purists do not need to protest the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This release serves as a bridge between its 1.33:1 television format and the 1.85:1 theatrical format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

To be honest, this is a rather remarkable 2.0 stereo sound mix. It isn’t likely to give one’s speakers a workout, but it is clearly rendered and well balanced. The film’s iconic music is impressively mixed, and dialogue is always clean and clearly audible. The track has more life than anyone has any right to expect.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Audio Commentary featuring Mick Garris (Director), Henry Thomas (Actor), and Olivia Hussey (Actor)

This informal track finds Mick Garris leading a conversation about the film’s production with Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey. The resulting track is surprisingly engaging if not ultimately enlightening. There aren’t any memorable dead spots in their discussion to interrupt the flow of information. Fans of the film should be thrilled to have this included on the disc.

Rare Behind-the-Scenes Footage – (HD) – (13:15)

This rare VHS footage from Mick Garris gives viewers a rare glimpse behind the scenes as the cast and crew work on some of the scenes that take place at the radio station. The footage was taken on the first day of the shoot. One of the more interesting aspects of the footage concerns a brief excerpt of dialogue that alludes to Emma Spool and the events of Psycho II and III. Joseph Stephano always claimed that he chose to ignore these events, so this raises questions as to whether this bit of dialogue was added to the script by someone else.

The Making of Mother: An Interview with Tony Gardner – (HD) – (27:41)

Tony Gardner (makeup effects artist)  isn’t the most articulate speaker, but his memories about his love for Alfred Hitchcock’s original film and his work as an effects artist for Psycho IV are interesting enough. He covers quite a bit of territory considering the limited scope of his experience. Fans of the film will certainly find the interview interesting.

A Look at the Scoring of Psycho IV – (HD) – (06:12)

This vintage VHS footage was taken during the film’s scoring sessions and is ultimately a rather anemic look at this aspect of filmmaking. It is vaguely interesting but less engaging than the on-set footage. Those interested in film scoring might gravitate towards this short glimpse at the scoring sessions, but they will be more likely to remember some of the other features.

Photo Gallery – (HD) – (06:06)

This collection of rare photos from Mick Garris is reasonably interesting but not particularly spectacular.

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Final Words:

Shout Factory has given Psycho IV: The Beginning a solid Blu-ray release. It isn’t one of their strongest Blu-ray transfers, but it is probably the best that this title is likely to receive.

Review by: Devon Powell

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 Source Material:

Steve Biodrowski (Interview: Psycho Screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Michael E. Hill (Psycho IV: Tony Perkins Takes Norman Back to the Beginning, The Washington Post, November 04, 1990)

Mick Garris (Trailers from Hell, 2013)

Lee Gambin (Q&A: Horror Maestro Mick Garris Revisits “Psycho IV: The Beginning, Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

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

Spine #828

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

 Release Date: August 16, 2016

 Region: Region A

Length: 1:54:16

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Ratio: 1.78:1

Bitrate: 32.33 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available in a DVD edition

Title

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

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

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

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

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

The Hitchcock-Bergman Trilogy

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

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

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

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

“Dear Ruth,

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Menu

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

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Two Deleted Scenes:

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

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

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

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

Extended Scenes:

Shubert Theatre – (14:01)

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

Rossellini Siblings – (05:48)

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

8 mm Home Movies – (07:07)

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

Interview with Stig Björkman – (18:35)

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

Clip from Landskamp (1932) – (00:34)

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (01:35)

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

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Final Words:

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

Swedish One Sheet

The Original Theatrical One Sheet

Review by: Devon Powell

Book Interview: The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia

Cover

Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield

Release Date: June 09, 2016

A Conversation with Stephen Whitty

Several decades after his last motion picture was produced, Alfred Hitchcock is still regarded by critics and fans alike as one of the masters of cinema. To study the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock is to study the history of cinema. From the silent films of the 1920s to his final feature in 1976, the director’s many films continue to entertain audiences and inspire filmmakers. In The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, Stephen Whitty provides a detailed overview of the director’s work. This reference volume features in-depth critical entries on each of his major films as well as biographical essays on his most frequent collaborators and discussions of significant themes in his work. For this book, Whitty doesn’t merely draw from the overwhelming pool of scholarship that already exists (though this does seem to be the basis of much of his work). He supplements the already existing information with his own source materials such as interviews he conducted with associates of the director—including screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (Marnie), actresses Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Kim Novak (Vertigo), actor Farley Granger (Rope; Strangers on a Train), actor and producer Norman Lloyd (Saboteur; Spellbound), and Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (Stage Fright; Strangers on a Train; Psycho)—among others. Encompassing the entire range of the director’s career, this is a comprehensive overview of cinema’s ultimate showman. A detailed and lively look at the master of suspense, The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia will be of interest to professors, students, and the many fans of the director’s work.

Alfred Hitchcock Master is proud to have secured this exclusive interview with Stephen Whitty, wherein he discusses his excellent book in candid detail.

AHM: Could you describe The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?

SW: The book is pretty much exactly as its title describes it – an A to Z (well, Y, anyway) of hundreds of topics, spread out over 500 illustrated, hardcover pages. Entries range from discussions of Hitchcock themes and obsessions (blondes, voyeurism, and guilt) to analyses of his films and television shows, to biographical essays on his most frequent stars and collaborators.

Unlike most other Hitchcock books, it’s arranged in a way that you can dip in and out at any time – you don’t have to wade through an entire chapter on Hitchcock in the ‘30s, for example, to find out about the making of The 39 Steps. But while you’re reading that entry, you’ll find  keywords that point you to other, stand-alone entries you might want to turn to – on Robert Donat, say, or images of bondage in Hitchcock’s work. So I think it’s a book that’s helpful to both students doing research on a particular film, and film buffs who just want a quick, browsable, entertaining source of information.

After I began writing my book, I did see that there had been another encyclopedia on Hitchcock about a decade ago. I looked at it quickly to see what its approach had been – which seemed to be less personal, more academic than mine – and then put it aside so it wouldn’t influence me in any way. “The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia” is a reference book too, but I wanted it to be very much based on my own experiences – my analysis of his work, my opinions of his stars, and especially my interviews with many of the people he’d worked with over the years. So there’s traditional scholarship here, yes, but also backstage stories of the making of the movies, and insights from and about the people he made them with.

AHM: What gave you the idea to write a Hitchcock themed encyclopedia, and what were the biggest challenges in writing the book?

SW: I had just gotten the latest catalogue from Rowman & Littlefield and saw that they had two similar volumes – encyclopedias on Tim Burton, and the Coen brothers – but nothing on Hitchcock, who I think remains perhaps Hollywood’s most influential, and certainly famous, director. I queried them and they were interested and I went to work.

I was lucky in that I’ve been writing about entertainment for more than 20 years and still had my notes on many Hitchcock colleagues I’ve interviewed over that time, from Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint to Bruce Dern and Norman Lloyd. And, of course, I have all the major critical studies and biographies that have come out on him. Tracking down copies of some of the films, such as Under Capricorn and Waltzes from Vienna, was a little harder.

The hardest thing was just finding the time to write what’s basically a one-person encyclopedia – I think the final manuscript was over 250,000 words. And then, of course, giving everything a second and third read, and fact-checking everything. My wife was a huge help there.

AHM: Was there any pressure (personal or otherwise) to refrain from including any overt analysis or opinion based information in the book?

SW: No, my experience is as a movie critic and essayist, not a strict historian, so I actually wanted this to be a book that included my own analysis and opinion along with factual information; although I might indicate what other critics have said about a film or performance, and any facts I employ are footnoted, the feelings in this book about Hitchcock and his work are mine. Hopefully, that personal approach will make it more valuable and entertaining to readers.

I suppose the only pressure I put on myself was to be fair. Hitchcock had several contentious and controversial professional relationships during his decades in Hollywood, first with his producer, David O. Selznick, and then with a few of his female stars, particularly Tippi Hedren. Having read a lot of material on the subject, and talked to some of the people involved, personally I’m convinced that Selznick’s involvement actually made several Hitchcock pictures worse, and that Hitchcock’s treatment of Hedren (and some of his other actresses) was harassment, pure and simple. Still, there are people who defend Selznick, and who disbelieve Hedren. I don’t have any doubts about how I feel, but I still tried to present all the known facts as fairly as I could.

AHM: Were there any articles or subjects that couldn’t be included in the book? How did you make the decision as to what was and wasn’t important?

SW: I’m sure there were topics I missed, or that some people will think I didn’t pay enough attention to. For example, although I cover all the TV shows he directed, I didn’t find them as interesting as the films, and devoted only a few lines to most of them; although I cover major collaborators in depth, I don’t touch on every art designer or bit player. On the other hand, some entries I included because I found them personally interesting, even though their connection to Hitchcock was more tenuous (the writer Graham Greene, say, or the critic Pauline Kael). And others became fascinating to me as I looked into their careers, and the more research I did the more their entries expanded; the life of Canada Lee, for example, who is in Lifeboat, could be its own movie. But I don’t think that anyone who is looking for a major Hitchcock topic – whether it’s Rear Window or Cary Grant – will be disappointed.

AHM: Hitchcock scholars seem to fit into two very different categories. The first category seems to embrace the Donald Spoto version of Alfred Hitchcock’s history, and the other group tends to question his scholarship. It is clear that you fit into the first category, and I was hoping that you might want to discuss this.

SW: I remember when the Spoto biography came out in the ‘80s, and it was pretty strongly attacked by the Hitchcock loyalists; when the movie The Girl appeared recently, based partly on another one of Spoto’s books, those criticisms began again. And I can understand that; honestly, as someone who already admired Hitchcock’s films a great deal, I was put off by Spoto’s book at first, too, because I found these stories about the director to be so disappointing. And I think we’ve seen far too many of these posthumous biographies that rip a dead celebrity to shreds once he or she is no longer around to defend themselves.

But even as some of Spoto’s research has been questioned – for example, a story about Hitchcock tormenting a classmate, and one about him playing a mean joke on his daughter, have both pretty much been disproven – other things have been confirmed, or added to. For example, Patrick McGilligan’s biography stands in opposition to a lot of what Spoto asserted – yet McGilligan also turned up an ugly story Spoto didn’t have, of Hitchcock making a pass at Brigitte Auber, from To Catch a Thief.  And other people – Joan Fontaine and Ann Todd, for example – have independently written about Hitchcock’s sometimes cruel or inappropriate behavior. (For example, Diane Baker told me that, on the Marnie set, not only was it clear that Hitchcock was acting oddly with Hedren, but that he’d come into her dressing room and suddenly kissed her.) So even putting Spoto’s book aside for a moment, there seems to be a pattern to Hitchcock’s behavior, particularly in his later years, even if many people didn’t experience or witness it themselves.

There are certainly plenty of things in the Spoto book which people can question – they happened years ago, we’re often only hearing one person’s side, memories can be faulty. (And, as a longtime journalist, I know that sometimes people are misquoted – and also that sometimes, seeing their quotes accurately repeated in print, some people suddenly have second thoughts and try to deny them.) You can never be sure you’re getting the whole story. But some of this is true of the McGilligan book too, I think, which talks about this vague, quasi-affair Alma Reville is supposed to have had with a screenwriter. It’s true of Patricia Hitchcock’s own book, which portrays an almost too-perfect family and home life (along with her mother’s favorite recipes!) And it’s certainly true of the movie Hitchcock which simply, blatantly made things up. But all in all I think the Spoto book is pretty solid. You can dispute individual things in it, but I feel it’s credible.

Psycho

“I love the sheer audacity of it – the way he sets up, and then deliberately confounds the audience’s narrative expectations at every turn. You like this heroine? Well, she’s dead now…” -Stephen Whitty

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

SW: I was a movie fan from a very early age, but Hitchcock was perhaps the first director I was truly aware of – his show was still on TV when I was very small, and of course he introduced each episode. So I was aware of him as a person and the more I saw his films, the more I became aware of him as an artist – seeing movies like The Birds, and North by Northwest and Psycho and realizing it was the same director behind all of them. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was a real movie buff, and had caught up with his earlier films – and “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and, later, “Hitchcock’s Films” by Robin Wood were enormous influences which I read over and over. The Truffaut book was particularly crucial, because in it Hitchcock really explains why he did something – why he framed something a particular way, the importance of a certain juxtaposition of shots. It’s not just Hitchcock on Hitchcock – it’s Hitchcock on film itself.

AHM: What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and why is this film your favorite?

SW: For the longest time, my favorite film of his was Psycho. I love the sheer audacity of it – the way he sets up, and then deliberately confounds the audience’s narrative expectations at every turn. You like this heroine? Well, she’s dead now. Oh, you’re interested in this private detective? Yes, well we’re going to kill him off, too. Everything – the camera work, the editing, and the music – feels 20 years ahead of its time. Lately, though, I feel myself going back more and more to Vertigo. It’s such a melancholy movie, so wrapped up in disappointment and defeat – I hope it’s not a bad sign that that’s becoming my favorite!

AHM: Do you have a least favorite Hitchcock film? What is it and why don’t you enjoy the film?

SW: I was hoping when I started this book and began re-watching all his movies that I’d have an epiphany, and suddenly reclaim one of his films as a lost masterpiece but, unfortunately, I really can’t. I’d love to say the majority opinion is wrong, but, I’m sorry – Waltzes from Vienna is still a bad movie. So is Topaz. There are always moments, in any Hitchcock movie worth your time – there’s one gorgeous shot in Topaz, when the woman is killed — but I’d say those two are my least favorite of his.

AHM: If you could bring Alfred Hitchcock back to life in order to complete one of his unfinished projects, which of these projects would you have him complete? Why would you choose this particular project?

SW: He himself so yearned to do the J.M. Barrie play “Mary Rose” I’d love to see him do  that, but mostly for his sake; the story doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, personally! But it was a film he wanted to do for decades, so clearly there was something in this story of a magical island that moved him. I’d love to see it and find out what.

AHM: There seems to be a rather unfortunate tendency among critics to assume that because Hitchcock’s films do not seem to have any overt political messages, that these films have nothing to say. I disagree. I think that his films hold a mirror up to mankind’s darker nature while asking some very pertinent questions about it. This can be every bit as important as some topical political theme. What are your thoughts on this?

SW: Well, first of all, I agree with you that his films do have a deeper, darker and perhaps more universal interest than topical concerns. Look at what Psycho is really sardonically saying about motherhood, and our duties to our parents. Or what Vertigo and Notorious reveal about unhealthy relationships. A “good” progressive movie like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? has dated. Shadow of a Doubt never will.

But you know, I also think Hitchcock is political. You examine his films, from at least The 39 Steps on, and you’ll see that the villain is almost always a wealthy, powerful authority figure; the heroes are usually ex-soldiers, teachers, reporters, middle-class professionals. The top spies and traitors in Saboteur are American millionaires who’ve embraced fascism; the hero is a factory worker. In Lifeboat, who are the survivors who are first taken in by the Nazi? The rich. Who are the ones who are suspicious of him? The working class. Who alone refuses to participate in their eventual mob justice? The black man.

And you know personally – quietly – when McCarthyism came, Hitchcock helped blacklisted people out with jobs. Norman Lloyd credited him with giving him back his career by asking him to help produce his TV show. Hitchcock went out of his way to hire other people for that show who’d been having trouble getting work, too, like Paul Henreid. So he wasn’t an obvious progressive in the way, say, Stanley Kramer was, but he was certainly conscious, and concerned.

That doesn’t mean I like Hitchcock because he’s political; I’d love his work even if it weren’t. But to assume that this filmmaker didn’t have a very strong feeling about class and power is a mistake. Just because he was “the Master of Suspense” doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about, and making stories about, a thousand other things.

 AHM: At the risk of cribbing a question from Robin Wood, I feel compelled to ask: Why should people take Hitchcock seriously?

SW: First of all, I think, there’s the filmmaking itself. He really was the consummate director, and a visual genius; perhaps D.W. Griffith gave us film’s essential grammar, but Hitchcock turned it into an entire, sophisticated language. The clarity of his editing, the impact of his composition, and the amount of narrative and thematic detail he was able to pack into a single image – he’s influenced generations and if we’re lucky will influence generations more.

But also, I think his films deal with serious themes. I think there used to be a certain bias in the underestimation of Hitchcock; after all, his best movies were often romantic mysteries, with female leads. How could they possibly be as important as the war movies and Westerns with big male stars directed by Ford and Hawks and Huston?

I love those films too, of course. But I think the fact that Hitchcock’s films weren’t typically macho movies meant that Hollywood, and many male critics, undervalued them for a long time.  And if you really look at his films, you’ll see that they’re about some extraordinarily big issues – guilt, sin, sexuality, trust.

And he himself is fascinating. I mean, I think the real question these days might not be “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” but “Which Hitchcock should we take seriously?”  Is it the sexist who victimized women on screen, or the feminist who decried that victimization? Is it the showman who made commercial blockbusters, or the artist who made risky personal films? And the answer to both is – yes. He was a complicated man — and his films are at least as complex as he was.

Vertigo

“It’s such a melancholy movie, so wrapped up in disappointment and defeat – I hope it’s not a bad sign that that’s becoming my favorite!” -Stephen Whitty

Interview by: Devon Powell

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

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: William Castle Double Feature: Homicidal & Mr. Sardonicus

Blu-ray Cover 1

Distributor: Mill Creek Entertainment

 Release Date: July 19, 2016

 Region: Region A

Length:

88 min (Homicidal)

90 min (Mr. Sardonicus)

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 Dolby Digital (448kbps)

Subtitles: None

Ratio:

1.85:1 (Homicidal)

1.78:1 (Mr. Sardonicus)

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

HitchHead

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

The Master of Suspense Vs. The Master of Schlock

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

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

Comparison 0

Comparison 1 Comparison 3

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

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

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

Fright Break Refund Ticket

This is a “Fright Break” Refund Ticket.

Fright Break

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

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

PSYCHO

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

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

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

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

Oskar Homolka in Mr. Sardonicus

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

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

Homicidal - One Sheet.jpg

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Sound Quality:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Special Features:

0 of 5 MacGuffins

There is no supplemental material included.

Mr. Sardonicus - One Sheet

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

NOTE:

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

Blu-ray Cover 2

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho & The Birds

PSYCHO - POPART

Distributor: Universal

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. This exact same transfer is being released with the same supplemental features in this new Pop Art edition of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition

THE BIRDS - POPART

Distributor: Universal

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The Birds (1963) is also being honored with a new Pop Art edition of the film that includes the same transfer with the same supplemental features available on Universal’s previous release of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

Blu-ray Review: Classic Hitchcock – The Criterion Collection

Boxed Set

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: December 15, 2015

Region: Region A

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

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

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934):

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

The 39 Steps (1935):

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

The Lady Vanishes (1938):

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

Foreign Correspondent (1940):

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

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

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

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.

menu1

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: Suspicion

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor:  Warner Bros.  

Release Date: April 12, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 1:39:24

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4 AVC)

Main Audio: Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

Mono French Dolby Digital

Mono Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

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

Title

Alfred Hitchcock had difficulty coming up with a suitable title for the film and was never happy with “Suspicion.” He considered it “cheap and dull,” and he proposed “Johnnie” in desperation after the studio forced the final title upon him.

“I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous. Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s at­tention had to be focused on that glass.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed discussing this particular lighting effect, his disappointment with Suspicion was always more than a little evident when he spoke about it in interviews. He thought the film “too glossy” and felt that it was compromised by the suits at RKO. While the director’s unfortunate habit of adopting the overall critical opinion about his work often leads scholarship astray, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. After all, the critical consensus was rather positive. The film even earned three Academy Awards nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Joan Fontaine), and Best Score (Franz Waxman), and Joan Fontaine took home the Oscar for Best Actress. In light of this information, it seems safe to assume that his disappointment is the result of creative compromise.

The reasons behind Suspicion’s troubled production are quite complex, but it is important to understand the studio climate that produced the film.

“At the eleventh hour, Edington, who had become a scapegoat for RKO’s downward spiral, was fired by studio president George Schaefer. Dan Winkler was also discharged, and with that the two men who had signed Hitchcock [and gave the director his creative freedom] were gone. Then, against all common sense, Schaefer hired none other than the lord high censor of the Production Code, Joseph Breen, as RKO’s temporary production boss. If Hitchcock had ever hoped to release ‘Before the Fact’ with an ending that faintly resembled the original, that hope now vanished.”Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

 It is difficult to imagine how any film made under these circumstances could achieve the enormous success that Suspicion proved to achieve, but it is worth questioning whether or not the film was admired because of its resemblance to Rebecca (which also enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful release). Both films starred Joan Fontaine in similar roles, and both films were what Hitchcock called “British films made in Hollywood.” 

“…The actors, the atmosphere, and the novel on which it’s based were all British. The screenwriter was Samson Raphaelson, who’d worked on the early talking pictures of Ernst Lubitsch.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966) 

Of course, Raphaelson came into the picture rather late in the process. Alfred Hitchcock had already been working out the story details with Alma Hitchcock and Joan Harrison. These two invaluable collaborators “batted ideas back and forth with Hitchcock” until the threesome had worked out a treatment outline for the film. Most of the story details were already in place before Raphaelson came aboard (which was often the case with Hitchcock’s screenwriters).

Of course, Raphaelson usually told a very different story.

“Raphaelson recalled that the Reville-Harrison treatment as incomplete, with ‘dummy’ dialogue, and rather ‘long-winded’ at that. Its main accomplishment was in pairing down the book’s characters and subplots. (In the novel, both the cad of a husband and the wife-victim have extra lovers, who would eventually be excised as a sop to censors.) Right off, Raphaelson told Hitchcock that the treatment ‘didn’t agree at all with the way I would get at it [the film],’ and asked if he could try his own ideas, adding, ‘If you don’t like what I write, we’ll fight it out.’ To his surprise, Hitchcock—almost matter-of-factly—said yes.

‘That story broke more easily for me than anything I have ever written,’ Raphaelson reflected years later. ‘Everything I brought to him [Hitchcock], he’d read instantly and it was fine.”Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

It is really no wonder that the story broke so easily, because he used the treatment that had already been completed. It probably isn’t fair to say that Raphaelson is lying, but he is liberally glossing over the contributions of other participants. He certainly made contributions (especially regarding the dialogue), but the shape of the film had already been worked out—or most of it had already been worked out. The team had trouble with the ending from the get-go. Besides, evidence suggests that Hitchcock was more than just a little involved with the writing of the screenplay.

It would be ridiculous to go through the treatments and the various screenplay drafts in an attempt to assign credit for each individual contribution, but looking at these documents do indicate that Raphaelson’s memories were self-serving. (Unless the writer was suffering from senility.) In fact, the team had a few other sources to inspire and guide them, and these sources are rarely given any attention.

“Hitchcock and his writing team appear to have drawn upon a pair of scripts written for RKO in 1939 and 1940 by screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Boris Ingster, and the novelist, Nathanael West. RKO had targeted Ingster and West’s 1940 script for an abandoned production featuring Laurence Olivier…The Ingster/West script, which received Code approval in 1940, differs from Hitchcock’s film in one crucial way. Attempting to follow the events of Before the Fact as closely as possible, these writers employed a frame story in which Lina stands trial for Johnnie’s murder; her testimony reveals that she murdered Johnny in self-defense. Her testimony structures the flashback narrative of the film which she illuminates with voice-over narration, outlining her suspicion and itemizing Johnnie’s crimes. This approach allowed the writers to keep Johnnie as a murderer, staying faithful to what they must have felt was the central thrust of Iles’ novel, and to appease the censors by having him killed off at the end.

This difference notwithstanding, several elements of the Ingster/West script—now published in the Library of America collection of West’s writings—informed Hitchcock and his writers. In particular, two different elements appear to have provided the inspiration for one of Suspicion’s early crucial scenes. In the opening scene of Lina’s trial, her prosecutor addresses the jury and demands that Lina be convicted of murder. Hearing his pronouncement, Lina ‘swallows, barely resisting the desire to touch her throat with her hands.’ This gesture, meant to foreshadow Johnnie’s later attempt to poison her, explicitly connects him to physical violence and strangulation. Such violence, absent in Before the Fact, is manifest in Suspicion in the scene in which Johnnie and Lina skip church. This scene, which sets up the ambiguity that permeates the film, forces us to ask whether Johnnie is a violent murderer or whether Lina has simply misread his behavior. Further, the scene structures its ambiguity through an open long shot in which Johnnie appears to be trying to strangle Lina. As a result, his later references to Lina’s ‘ucipital mapilary’ become difficult to decode, as they may refer to either romantic or violent desire.

The church-skipping scene itself, absent from the novel, stems from the Ingster/West script, in which Johnnie whisks Lina away from church for an impromptu picnic. The picnic over, he rises to take her home: ‘he pulls her up, then abruptly, before she can even suspect what he is going to do, he holds her tightly and kisses her [as] she struggles to free herself.’ As he continues, ‘her struggles grow less and he pulls her to him a second time and kisses her while she struggles to free herself,’ though ‘soon she isn’t struggling at all.’ The suggestiveness of this scene was clearly absorbed into Suspicion, but the influence of the early treatments on Hitchcock and his writers ends there.” –Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

It is unfortunate that these unproduced early screenplays didn’t suggest an appropriate ending for Suspicion. Hitchcock and his team were fighting both studio and audience expectations, and they were at a loss for an ending that would satisfy both. The problem plagued Hitchcock into the film’s post-production.

Alfred Hitchcock believed that this problem was exacerbated by his casting choices. Suspicion marked the beginning of one of the director’s most important professional relationships. It was his first film with Cary Grant, and the actor shined in the role of Johnny Aysgarth. The part was different from the roles that Grant usually played, but he was able to display another layer to his persona. 

“Calling attention to the fact that Johnnie is essentially a dangerous version of the Grant persona suggests that the master of playing the carefree playboy hides a sinister motive behind his light comedy—an individual whose charms kept him hiding in plain sight. The role would be a balancing act for Grant, for if that threat did not exist, the film would be without any suspense whatsoever and becomes a directionless melodrama. But if Johnnie is too dangerous and suspicious, Lina’s attraction to him is called into question and [this] destroys the audience’s alliance to her. It was a daring request for Hitchcock to make of the giant star, especially considering the approach Grant takes with the role; rather than playing Johnnie as a significantly different character, his performance is not that different from how he plays so many of his comic characters.” –Lesley L Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014) 

In other words, Hitchcock wasn’t casting against type at all. He was casting a light on the darker qualities that are hidden in the shadows of that “type.” This is one of the most interesting aspects of Suspicion, and the power of this layer of the film was diluted somewhat by the film’s ending. This fact didn’t escape the actor’s attention. Grant agreed with his director about the new ending and later lamented, “We were told later that the audience simply refused to accept [Johnny] as a murderer. In the new version, the film just stops—without the proper ending.”

The two men worked well together. In fact, the director probably gave more of his attention to his leading man than he did to Joan Fontaine.  

“Although principal photography began pleasantly enough on February 10, a coolness developed between the two stars and between Fontaine and Hitchcock; having put the actress through what she called his ‘finishing school,’ Hitchcock probably gave her less attention on Suspicion than he had on Rebecca.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

This lack of attention so bothered the actress that she complained to RKO’s production offices. The suits were already worried about the production (it was going over schedule), and Fontaine’s complaints only fueled their anxiety.

“…In April 1941 an inter-departmental memo observed brusquely: ‘Hitchcock does not appear to be giving as close attention to this picture as he should be—we have good cause to worry about the quality of this production. As a matter of fact, Fontaine has indicated that Hitchcock has not been so exacting in his requirements of her—as he was on Rebecca.’” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of these issues lead to a post-production period that was fraught with creative interference. The studio’s fingers couldn’t stay out of the proverbial pie.

“Principal photography on Suspicion resumed, with RKO determined to speed up the post-production to curb interest charges. Hitchcock blew up, ‘I have never in my puff heard of an important picture being delivered one month after completion of its shooting,’ he wrote [Harry] Edington. ‘Please, Harry, please, tell me this is only a joke so I may resume work on the picture with a feeling of reassurance that it is not going to be sabotaged; otherwise, how can I possibly dream of enthusiastically listening to RKO’s suggestion that I make another picture here.’ When Hitchcock at last completed Principal Photography and briefly traveled east on vacation, producer Sol Lesser trimmed all hints of murder from Suspicion, reducing the running time to fifty-five minutes.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

The director often commented on this atrocious fifty-five minute cut of the film.

…I remember the head of RKO returned from New York and said, with a big grin on his face, ‘Oh, you should see what’s been done to your film Suspicion.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Wait and see.’ It was now only 55 minutes long. They had gone through the film in my absence and taken out every scene that indicated the possibility that Cary Grant was a murderer. So there was no film existing at all. That was ridiculous. Nevertheless, I had to compromise on the end.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Bryan Forbes at the National Film Theatre, October 03, 1969)

Here again, we seem to stumble upon the problematic ending. This compromised ending is what keeps Suspicion off the list of Hitchcock’s great films, and the director was “not too pleased” with the ending that he was forced to use. His original idea for the film’s ending was very different from the one that ended the final film.

“What I wanted to do was that the wife was aware that she was going to be murdered by her husband, so she wrote a letter to her mother saying that she was very much in love with him, she didn’t want live anymore, she was going to be killed but society should be protected. She therefore brings up this fatal glass of milk, drinks it and before she does she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to mother?’ Then she drinks the milk and dies. You then have just one final scene of a cheerful Cary Grant going to the mailbox and posting the letter. But this was never permitted because of the basic error in casting.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Bryan Forbes at the National Film Theatre, October 03, 1969)

Before the Fact” ended similarly but didn’t include an incriminating letter:

“…On the third day of her illness Johnnie came into her bedroom to see her, in the middle of the morning. He was carrying a glass of milk-and-soda on a little tray. Lina turned her head on the pillows and smiled at him. Johnnie stood just inside the door, looking at her. His face worked. The smile faded from Lina’s lips. A single stab, like an electric shock, ran through her whole body. She knew, beyond a doubt, that the moment had come. ‘Monkeyface, I – I’ve brought you this.’

In an instant Lina’s mind had mechanically reviewed the situation,  and found it safe. Johnnie had not been silly. People did die of influenza. She jerked  herself up on one elbow in bed. She must be quick: quick to act, before she could think, and be afraid. The thin silk nightgown slipped down over her shoulder. ‘Give it me.’ But Johnnie hesitated. There were tears in his eyes, just as Lina had foreseen. She stretched out her hand. ‘Give it me, Johnnie.’ Johnnie sidled up towards the bed.

Lina snatched  the glass and drained it. It tasted quite ordinary. Could she have made a mistake, after all? But Johnnie was looking down at her in a way which showed that she had made no mistake. She wiped her lips carefully on her handkerchief and lifted her face to Johnnie. ‘Kiss me, Johnnie.’ Johnnie was staring at her now with an expression of absolute horror. It was as if he had not realized at all what he was doing until he had done it. “Kiss me!” She locked her arms round his neck and held him, for a few seconds, strained against her. ‘Now go, darling.’

‘Monkeyface,  I—I…’

‘Go, darling.’ She did not want Johnnie to see her die. Johnnie went. Lina listened to       his slow, shambling footsteps going down the stairs, so unlike Johnnie’s usual brisk tread. The tears came into her own eyes. Johnnie would miss her terribly. He had gone into the Morning room. He would stay there, waiting. Lina could hardly believe she was going to die. After she had lived so vividly. After she had liked life, in spite of what it had brought her, so much. What would death be like? She was not exactly frightened of it. But … But it did seem a pity that she had to die.

A tear trickled slowly down her cheek onto the pillow. It did seem a pity that she had to die, when she would have liked so much to live.” Anthony Berkeley as Francis Iles (Before the Fact, 1932)

Before The Fact - First Edition

This is the First Edition hardback cover for “Before the Fact” by Francis Iles.

Hitchcock’s preferred ending seems to relate directly to the novel’s climax, but his addition of the letter is an especially Hitchcockian touch. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of documented evidence that this ending was ever shot, and certain scholars feel that Hitchcock never gave it any serious consideration. However, it seems highly likely that the studio simply nixed the ending before it had the chance to be officially committed to paper. After all, there is ample evidence in the body of the film that his preferred ending was strongly considered. Steven DeRosa is one of several scholars to comment on the film’s mail motif.

“In spite of the lack of script material for an ‘incriminating letter’ ending, there is much evidence in the finished film to support Hitchcock’s statements that this was his preferred ending. Such an ending is consistent with—and would have completed—a major theme in the existing picture.

In the opening sequence, it is a postage stamp which Johnnie borrows from Lina that ultimately brings them together. Using the stamp to pay his fare, Johnnie remarks to the annoyance of the conductor, ‘Write to your mother!’ Thus, foreshadowing the ending of Lina’s incriminating letter to her mother. At crucial moments in the film letters are sent and received. When Lina elopes with Johnnie, the excuse that she gives her parents when she goes out is that she is going to the post office.

The theme of ‘letters’ is carried forward in the game of anagrams that Lina plays with Beaky. At the moment when Lina decides she will leave Johnnie, she writes a letter to him, ultimately tearing it up (an action that would be repeated by both Judy Barton in Vertigo and Melanie Daniels in The Birds). Johnnie then enters with a telegram containing news of his father-in-law’s death. Later, Lina’s suspicions mount when Johnnie hides a letter he’s received from an insurance company. Finally, Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance dropping a letter into a mailbox.

Also telling are several suggested titles contained in a memo from producer Harry Edington to RKO executive Peter Lieber, dated December 10, 1940, which include: Letter from a Dead Lady, A Letter to Mail, Posthumously Yours, Forever Yours, Yours to Remember, and Your Loving Widow — all suggestive of the ‘incriminating letter’ ending…” Steven DeRosa (writingwithhitchcock.com)

Besides this preferred ending to the film, there is ample evidence of two other endings.

“The first two or three drafts of the screenplay even go so far as to have the husband, exonerated, go off into the RAF to atone. (‘Only yesterday he fought off ten German fighters—downed three of them himself, disabled one, and chased the rest of them halfway across the Channel.’)”John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

This ending as scripted is rather unsatisfying. It seems to kowtow to the studio and censors more than necessary. One wonders if this ending was ever seriously considered by Hitchcock. It seems possible that it was scripted in this manner in an effort to curb interference from the Hays office. However, this is merely conjecture.

The infamous “preview ending” was quite a bit different but proved unsatisfactory to audiences.

“In the June 1941 test screenings, the film ended with Lina drinking the milk, then realizing it is not poisoned. Discovering that Johnnie is on the verge of poisoning himself, she halts his suicide plan and fields his pleas for forgiveness for being a cad (and realizes he is no murderer), and they make up. In comment cards, a number of audience members found Lina’s drinking of the milk to lack credibility. One respondent best summed up the sentiment: ‘You violated the first principal [sic] of every human—preservation of life at any cost. … What sane woman would act that way?’” –Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

One might ask this particular respondent the following questions: “Why are you so certain that Lina is a sane woman? Can she not have weak moments? Do people not give up trying? Have you never heard of suicide?” After all, this viewer said nothing of Cary Grant’s plan to end his life. Is this not a double standard of some kind? However, Alfred Hitchcock responded differently to this particular response.

“Hitchcock raised the point himself just after Suspicion’s release, telling the New York Herald Tribune, ‘It seemed logical to me that she would drink it and put him to the test. If he didn’t, fine and good; her suspicions would clear away and we’d have our happy ending. We shot that finish. … Trial audiences booed it, and I don’t blame them [because it contained dull exposition]. They pronounced the girl stupid to willingly drink her possible destruction. With that dictum, I personally do not agree.’ The director speaks directly to the novel’s primary inquiry. Before the Fact’s heroine is a seemingly sane woman who does in fact ‘act that way.’” –Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

One highly doubts that this ending would have been particularly satisfying, but it couldn’t be any worse than what became the film’s final ending.

“Added to the script on July 18, 1941, the present ending emerged after several months of revisions, all directed at re-working Samson Raphaelson’s ending… All of the endings tried and abandoned for Suspicion revolve around the poisoned milk, and lead to Johnny’s confession of his wrongdoings—he may not have been a murderer, but he was certainly a gambler and an embezzler—and also, in some way, to the renewal of the couple’s romance. With all these endings rejected, and with Hitchcock forced to reconstruct the film after it was dismantled in his absence by an overzealous RKO executive, the director added the present ending to the shooting script, well after principal photography had been completed. Importantly, as written, the ending contains a line of dialogue that disappeared during filming or editing and that significantly alters how the ending is interpreted. In the shooting script, after Lina has pleaded with Johnnie to return home and help rebuild their marriage, Johnnie states outright, ‘No, Lina. We’re saying goodbye.’ The film cuts to the final shot of their car driving away, with Lina moving closer to Johnnie. In the ending of the film, Johnnie simply says, ‘No, Lina, no,’ and, as they drive off, he wraps his arm around her, suggesting the possibility that he has accepted her request. The two endings are drastically different despite these small changes. In the script, Johnnie appears to confirm his criminal behavior and his inability to change, and Lina’s final gesture appears as one last, misguided attempt to bring her and Johnnie together. In the film, however, Johnnie’s dismissal of Lina is irresolute, and his final gesture suggests, both simultaneously and contradictorily, his desire to renew his romance with Lina, and the continuation of his malevolent intentions.” –Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

This ending feels as if it has been tacked on as an after-thought (and such is the case). Of course, there are those that disagree. Interestingly, François Truffaut defended the film’s ending during his infamous interview with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962.

“I’ve read the novel and I liked it, but the screen­play’s just as good. It is not a compromise; it’s actually a different story. The film version, showing a woman who believes her husband is a killer, is less farfetched than the novel, which is about a woman who accepts the fact that her husband is a murderer. It seems to me that the film, in terms of its psychological values, has an edge over the novel because it allows for subtler nuances in the characterizations. One might even say that Hollywood’s unwritten laws and taboos helped to purify Suspicion by de-dramatizing it, in contrast with routine screen adaptations, which tend to magnify the melodramatic elements. I’m not saying that the picture is superior to the novel, but I do feel that a novel that followed the story line of your screenplay might have made a better book than ‘Before the Fact.’”François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Truffaut may have a point, but many of the film’s positive reviews couldn’t help but mention the ending with a degree of regret. Film Bulletin hinted at this in their early trade review: 

“This does not match Alfred Hitchcock’s superb Rebecca, but it is another taut, suspenseful film drama from the famed director. It has some slow spots and the story carries on beyond its natural ending in an effort to squeeze out a bit more suspense, but the sheer cleverness of the masterful Hitchcock keeps the spectator rapt in his megaphone magic. There are the same elements in this show that made box-office successes of pictures like Rebecca and A Woman’s Face. It is not ‘pleasant’ entertainment, but it is fascinating and completely diverting. The presence of Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in the cast assures a fast start for Suspicion in all situations and grosses should maintain a high level with the support of favorable word-of-mouth…” Film Bulletin (October 04, 1941)

Bosley Crowther’s criticisms were padded with a generally positive response to the film, but it is worth noting that his largest complaint is targeted at the film’s compromised ending.

“If Alfred Hitchcock were not the fine film director that he is, the chances are better than even that he would be a distinguished light at the (legal) bar. For very few lawyers are gifted with the special ability which is his to put a case together in the most innocent but subtle way, to plant prima facie evidence without arousing the slightest alarm and then suddenly to muster his assumptions and drive home a staggering attack. Mr. Hitchcock is probably the most artful sophist working for the films — and anyone who doesn’t’ think so should see Suspicion at the Music Hall.

True, we should incidentally warn you that this is not Mr. Hitchcock at his best, for the clerical staff which helped him prepare his brief for this case did not provide too much in the way of material. Those highly intriguing complications which have featured some of his previous master works are lacking in this instance. Rather Mr. Hitchcock is compelled to construct his attack around a straight psychological progression: a shy, deeply sensitive English girl marries a charming rakehell in maiden innocence, and then, through accumulated evidence, begins to suspect him of dark and foul deeds, suspects of murdering two dear people and finally of having designs upon herself.

Clearly, Mr. Hitchcock’s problem is to give this simple story great consequence—to build, out of slight suggestions and vague, uncertain thoughts, a mounting tower of suspicion which looms forbiddingly. And this he does magnificently with his customary casualness. And early remark dropped by the girl’s father to the effect that her intended is a cheat, a scene in which the husband acts strangely indifferent to a friend when the latter is seized with a heart attack, a little squabble over a slight untruth — all are directed by Mr. Hitchcock so that they seem inconsequential at the time but still with a sinister undertone which grows as the tension mounts.

Much of his purpose is accomplished through the performance of Joan Fontaine, it must be said, and she, as well as Mr. Hitchcock, deserves unstinted praise. This young lady has unquestionably become one of the finest actresses on the screen, and one of the most beautiful, too; and her development in this picture of a fear-tortured character is fluid and compelling all the way. Cary Grant as the husband is provokingly irresponsible, boyishly gay and also oddly mysterious, as the role properly demands; and Nigel Bruce, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Leo G. Carroll are fine in minor roles.

One must remark that the ending is not up to Mr. Hitchcock’s usual style, and the general atmosphere of the picture is far less genuine than he previously has wrought. But still he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense and a picture that entertains you from beginning to — well, almost the end.” –Bosley Crowther (New York Times, November 21, 1941)

The response across the ocean didn’t digress from this pattern, as this review published in The Times indicates:

“It is easy to understand the appeal that such a novel as Mr. Francis Iles’s ‘Before the Fact,’ on which this film is based would have for a director of Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s particular talents. Mr. Hitchcock delights in building up suspense, in suggesting, by touches which have all the subtlety of the seemingly careless, that things are not quite what they seem, in creating an atmosphere of suspicion…

…Up to the last few minutes Mr. Hitchcock follows the book faithfully, and his methods — sudden, uneasy silences, an effective, if a little crude, use of shadow, some cleverly taken close-ups — enhance the drama, but he then suddenly and unforgivably reverses all the points he has been at such pains to make, and kills the psychological significance of the story by clearing Johnnie of all suspicion and providing a happy end. A sad finish to a film which, so long as it keeps to the book, is absorbing…” -The Times (December 04, 1941)

Hollywood Magazines 4 Star review also found the film’s single fault in the film’s ending.

Suspicion is a gripping, compelling film. Alfred Hitchcock again proves himself a superb master of direction and production. Joan Fontaine, in her second big screen role, surpasses even her brilliant work in Rebecca… Miss Fontaine’s acting, as her terrifying suspicions mount, is superb.

The mood and shading of character are unequalled by any of Hitchcock’s previous films. Cary Grant is convincing in his unsympathetic role. If the film has a fault, it lies in the ending, which is anticlimactic after the high-pitched suspense and excitement of the entire film.” -Hollywood Magazine (February 1942)

Of course, there were a few reviews that refrained from criticizing the denouement. Variety’s review is one such example:

“Alfred Hitchcock’s trademarked cinematic development of suspenseful drama, through mental emotions of the story principals, is vividly displayed in Suspicion, a class production [from the novel ‘Before the Fact’ by Francis Iles] provided with excellence in direction, acting, and mounting…” –Variety (December 31, 1941)

A review published in Harrison’s Reports even seemed to praise the films finale:

“Brilliantly directed and acted with skill by a group of expert performers, this drama should prove thrilling fare for adults, particularly of the class trade. Even though the story is unpleasant, and the character portrayed by Cary Grant unsympathetic, so interesting is the plot development that one’s attention is held to the end. The credit for this is owed to a great extent to Alfred Hitchcock, who again shows his mastery at directing thrillers. The closing scenes, in which the heroine, thinking that her husband was about to kill her, tries to jump from a speeding car, are so tensely exciting that one is left trembling at the conclusion.” -Harrison’s Reports (September 27, 1941)

The success of the film brought RKO over half a million in profits after the accounting was complete, and the film’s critical success reinforced Hitchcock’s reputation. After all is said and done, Suspicion is a highly engaging film with some brilliant performances. It isn’t a masterwork, but it is an enjoyable way to spend ninety-nine minutes.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This seems to be the same artwork utilized for the film’s original one sheet. It really looks quite fabulous! The one sheet artwork is almost always superior to what is used for home movie releases, and it is nice to see that Warner Archives didn’t make this mistake.

The menu utilizes this same artwork and it is accompanied by an excerpt from Franz Waxman’s score.

Menu

Most would agree that it is quite elegant and easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Archives offers another nice transfer with this release. If there are flaws in the image, they seem to stem from Harry Stradling’s “glossy” soft focus cinematography. Detail is limited by the aesthetics, but this Blu-ray release does offer a level of detail that has gone unseen on previous DVD editions of the film. The transfer seems to embrace he film’s original celluloid source, as there is a nice fine layer of grain present throughout the film. However, the grain structure is never erratic or distracting to the viewer. Contrast is nicely rendered here and blacks are always deep without noticeably crushing any details.

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Sound Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

The Mono DTS-HD Master Audio is a nice rendering of the film’s sound elements, but these elements are marginally problematic in that the music seems a bit boxed in by the recording methods of the era, and dialogue sometimes seems a bit thin. However, one cannot expect the transfer to be any better than the film’s original source elements. There aren’t any distracting anomalies here, and none of these minor flaws are ever distracting.

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Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

 “Before the Fact: Suspicious Hitchcock” – (SD) – (21:33)

Those with a familiarity with Laurent Bouzereau’s  comprehensive documentaries for Universal’s Hitchcock catalog might find themselves disappointed with this program. Film historians and scholars (Bill Krohn, Robert Osborne, Richard Schickel, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Franklin, and Christopher Husted) discuss the film and its place in Hitchcock’s filmography while giving a few details about the production. Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter) and John W. Waxman (Franz Waxman’s son) are also on board to discuss their father’s work on the film. It is an interesting piece that could more properly be called an appreciation of the film. Fans will be grateful to have it included here.

Theatrical Trailer – (01:37)

This trailer for Suspicion has seen better days. Both the picture and the sound have been marred by time. There even seems to be footage missing from this one. However, it is really nice to see it included. Fontaine’s Lina addresses the audience and tells audiences about her suspicions as we see clips from the film.

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Final Words:

Suspicion isn’t the perfect Hitchcock thriller, but it is always engaging and boasts incredible performances across the board. Cary Grant’s first performance for Alfred Hitchcock is at once amusing and menacing. This Blu-ray release is the perfect way to watch the film at home and earns an enthusiastic recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Francis Iles [aka Anthony Berkeley Cox] (Before the Fact, 1932)

Staff Writer (Filmdom’s Only Feminine Writing Team Specializes in Thrillers, Syracuse Herald Journal, July, 10 1941)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, September 27, 1941)

Staff Writer (Film Bulletin, October 04, 1941)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, November 21, 1941)

Staff Writer (The Times, December 04, 1941)

Staff Writer (Variety, December, 31, 1941)

Staff Writer (Hollywood Magazine, February 1942)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

Charles Higham & Roy Moseley (Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, 1989)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Steven DeRosa (writingwithhitchcock.com)

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

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

Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Blu-ray Review: Family Plot

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 03, 2013

Region: Region A

Length: 02:00:04

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

01 - Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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Picture Quality:

1.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

Storyboards: The Chase Scene – (SD)

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

Production Photographs – (SD)

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

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Final Words:

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

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Review by: Devon Powell