Blu-ray Review: Dial M for Murder

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: October 09, 2012

 Region: Region Free

Length: 1:45:24

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Alternate Audio:  

French Mono: Dolby Digital

German Mono: Dolby Digital

Italian Mono: Dolby Digital

Spanish Mono: Dolby Digital

Portuguese Mono: Dolby Digital

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

Ratio: 1.78:1

Bitrate: 29.92 Mbps

Notes: This title is available in a DVD edition that contains a “flat” version of the film in the 1.33:1 ratio. Luckily, this version isn’t cropped. They simply unmated the top and bottom portions of the frame.

Title Screenshot

“I was running for cover. When your batteries run dry, when you are out creatively, and you have to go on, that’s what I call running for cover. Take a comparatively successful play that requires no great creative effort on your part and make it. Keep your hand in, that’s all. When you’re in this business, don’t make anything unless it looks like it’s going to promise something. If you have to make a film — as I was under contract to Warners at the time — play safe. Go get a play and make an average movie — photographs of people talking. It’s ordinary craftsmanship. But there is another interesting facet about the photographed stage play. Some people make the mistake, I think, of trying to open the play up for the screen. That’s a big mistake. I think the whole conception of a play is confinement within the proscenium — and that’s what the author uses dramatically. Now you are undoing a newly-knitted sweater. Pull it apart and you have nothing. In Dial M, I made sure that I would go outside as little as possible. I had a real tile floor laid down, the crack under the door, the shadow of the feet, all part of the stage play and I made sure I didn’t lose that. Otherwise, if you go outside, what do you end up with? A taxi arrives outside, the door opens, and they get out and go in.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Dial ‘M’ For Murder was a smart career choice for Alfred Hitchcock. He needed a fast hit after the commercial failure of I Confess (which deserves a much better reputation). Frederick Knott’s play had been a hit in both London and New York, and Alfred Hitchcock knew that it would make a fast and easy hit for him if he were to adapt it for the cinema screen. The play began its life as a rather unimaginative television production for the BBC, but the play’s success was really due to the enthusiastic reception that it received on the London stage. (Broadway success was just around the corner.)

Alfred Hitchcock opted to keep the play’s structure intact and hired Frederick Knott to help him turn his hit play into a screenplay. With the exception of a few minor changes to the text, Knott needed only to reformat his play into screenplay form. One of the more obvious changes was a dramatically different (and much shorter) opening.

“As the curtain rises, MARGOT is handing MAX a drink. She suddenly hears something in the passage outside and opens and peeps through the hall door for a moment. Then she closes the hall door and turns to MAX.

MARGOT
(A little worried)

For a moment I thought it was Tony. I’m sorry I interrupted you. What were we talking about . . . ?

MAX

I was just telling you that I murdered exactly fifty-two people since I saw you last.

MARGOT
(With a laugh, picking up her drink. Sits on couch)

Oh, yes — one a week. How did you do it?

MAX

Every way I could think of. I electrocuted some in their baths, locked others in the garage with the motor running or pushed them through windows and over cliffs. Other weeks I preferred to poison, shoot, strangle, stab, slug or suffocate.

MARGOT

Just according to how you felt?

MAX

When you write for that kind of television you don’t have time to feel anything.

MARGOT

Where do you get all your ideas from?

MAX

Oh — newspaper stories — police files — bad dreams — other writers . . .

MARGOT

You once told me you’d never write anything that wasn’t original.

MAX

Huh — you try being original fifty-two times a year!

MARGOT

Suppose you just dry up and can’t think of anything?

MAX

If it comes to that I just use my three hats.

MARGOT

What do you mean?

MAX

I’ve got three old hats marked: Who kills who, How, and Why.

MARGOT

Which is what? I mean what’s Why?

MAX

‘Why’ is the motive for killing. You’ve got to have a motive, you know. There are only five important ones. Fear — jealousy — money — revenge — and protecting someone you love. I just write them down on pieces of paper and pick one out of the ‘Why’ hat.

MARGOT

Sounds rather like sorting the week’s washing.

MAX

It’s about as artistic as that. But better paid. It’s no more frustrating than writing plays that aren’t produced or novels that aren’t published. . . . And don’t forget this: It all goes to prove that WITO makes teeth bright — white and bite! Makes amends and keeps your friends.

MARGOT
{Laughs)
Let’s have your glass, Max.

MAX

No . . . I’m all right, thanks.

MARGOT

I could hardly believe it when I heard your voice. At first I thought you were phoning from New York.

MAX

Yes, I thought you were shouting a little louder than necessary. As a matter of fact I was just around the corner. (A pause anxiously) Was it all right . . . my phoning like that?

MARGOT

Yes, of course.

MAX

Was that — Tony who answered?

MARGOT

Yes, it was. (An awkward pause) I do hope he isn’t going to be too late. Poor darling. He always gets caught when we’re going to the theater. (Pause) So you’re not here on a holiday — this time?

MAX

No, not this time. I came over to write some short TV films. After that I think I’ll finally knock off for a year and write that novel. I’ve got to write it someday.

MARGOT

Another crime story?

MAX

I have to stick to crime — it’s my stock in trade. But there’s no reason why a murder story can’t be as good as anything else. And I think I could write a good one if I took the time. I thought of a pretty fair gimmick on the plane coming over. There’s a pair of twins — identical — one lives in Paris and the other in New York — all of a sudden they both decide to…

(MARGOT has been growing anxious and loses interest in all this.)

MARGOT
(Interrupting)

Max, before Tony comes I ought to explain something.

MAX

Yes?

MARGOT

I didn’t tell him anything about us.

MAX

Oh.

MARGOT

When you rang up yesterday, I just said that you were a radio writer I’d met when he was in America.

MAX

Well, that’s true enough.

MARGOT
I said I’d met you again just before you went back to New York and you promised to look us up if you ever came back.

MAX

I see.

MARGOT

Max, I know you think it’s silly, but when you get to know Tony, you’ll understand why…”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

The rest of the scene plays out like Hitchcock’s film version (with a few minor alterations that condense their exchange). Hitchcock has replaced this text with a short montage that explains the relationship between the three principal characters in an efficient visual manner. One will also notice that Max has become Mark in the screen version.

There are a few other small additions to the screenplay. For example, Mark and Tony are shown at the club as Tony waits to make the phone call. Hitchcock is able to prolong the suspense elements of Margot’s attempted murder. We see Tony waiting to use the phone and Lesgate waiting anxiously for it to ring. This scene is improved exponentially by cross-cutting between these elements. We are also shown a slightly extended version of Tony’s manipulation of the crime scene. An example would be that in the play, Tony simply pockets the scarf, but he burns the scarf in the film. Hitchcock also shows us a short scene after this that dramatizes the police detectives discovering some of his planted evidence.

The only other major change to the original play occurs right before what is “Act Three, Scene One.” Hitchcock has added a somewhat expressionistic rendering of Margot’s trial. Instead of dramatizing a realistic condensation of a trial sequence, Hitchcock shows us Margot’s subjective emotional experience during her trial.

Judgement

The scene acts as a sort of bridge between scenes that would have played rather awkwardly without something to separate them. (Curtains are drawn between the scenes in Knott’s play.) The scene replaces a radio broadcast that is heard at the beginning of the final act.

“[TONY] puts attaché case on bed, looks at watch and then crosses to table. He turns on radio. He returns to attaché case and unlocks it. He takes out money, puts it in pocket and re-locks the case. The radio fades in as he looks up at the set and listens intently.

ANNOUNCER

… The main obstacles were the export of fruit and vegetables. Agreement has now been reached that the export quotas originally asked for be lowered by twelve and a half percent.

The Home Secretary has written to the lawyers of Mrs. Margot Wendice to say that he has decided that there are not sufficient grounds to justify his recommending a reprieve. At the Old Bailey last November Mrs. Wendice was found guilty of the murder of Charles Alexander Swann and was sentenced to death. The official forecast is that there will be bright periods and showers in all districts today. Frost is expected again tonight, especially in the South.

(Phone rings)

The time is now eleven minutes past one and that is the end of the news…

TONY switches off radio and crosses to phone.

TONY
(Into phone)

Hullo!

PENDLETON
(Off stage, heard through receiver)

Mr. Wendice?

TONY

Yes?

PENDLETON

Pendleton here.

TONY

Oh, good afternoon.

PENDLETON

Have you decided about the letters?

TONY

Yes — I’ll be quite frank with you — the cost of the defense has been very high. I shall have to ask for five hundred pounds.

PENDLETON

Five hundred! But I’m only asking for her letters . . .

TONY

That’s all very well — how would you like your wife’s letters read by millions of people?

PENDLETON

I’m prepared to offer three fifty . . .

TONY

No, I’m sorry. I’ve quite made up my mind.

PENDLETON

Could you give me a little time to think this over?

TONY

By all means, think it over — only I’m going away the day after tomorrow.

(The door buzzer, TONY glances anxiously at the door. Quietly)

Excuse me. I shall have to ring you back.

He rings off. Goes to door and opens it. MAX stands in the passage outside. He wears neither coat nor hat. They stare at each other for a moment or two.

MAX

Hullo, Tony…”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

Alfred Hitchcock omitted the exchange between Tony and Pendleton, because Mark arrives in a taxi just as Tony is entering his building. The exchange is interesting and says a lot about Tony’s character, but in the end it isn’t necessary. Other than a few minor alterations, the rest of the film follows the play rather faithfully. Most of these minor changes were made to simplify and condense the sequence. However, a small flourish was added to the film’s final moments. The curtains closed on the play after Tony realizes that he is trapped.

“After several paces he sees MARGOT and MAX, stares at MARGOT for a long moment and then drops the books and the handbag to the ground. Then he turns and sees HUBBARD. Suddenly he throws away his raincoat and rushes to the hall door in a panic. He opens the hall door but a detective in plain clothes moves in from the left and blocks his way. TONY turns back into the room and stares at MARGOT. MARGOT turns her head away from tony and toward MAX. HUBBARD looks TONY up and down for a moment, then moves very slowly to the telephone and dials a number.

Curtain”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

Hitchcock and Knott ended the screenplay with Tony pouring a drink for himself as he offers everyone else in the room a drink. He remains cool as a cucumber throughout the entire scene. It really is a very charming bit of business.

Most people would be fast to mention that Dial M for Murder was Grace Kelly’s first appearance in an Alfred Hitchcock film, but it is rarely mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock cast two actors that were featured in the successful New York production of the stage play. Anthony Dawson had played Captain Lesgate, and John Williams won the Tony Award for his portrayal of Inspector Hubbard. Anthony Dawson spoke about this in his unpublished memoirs.

“… I had never met Hitchcock before, and yet he was about to do me the most fantastic good turn I could imagine. In that wonderful fat man’s Cockney voice, he said, slowly, drooping every word separately, as though he had all day: ‘Tony, I just called to let you know that I want you for this picture, so you’re quite safe to make yourself a nice deal.’ What could I say? I mumbled my thanks and put the phone down, feeling rather dazed, electrified, stunned; all of these. The full impact of this call from Hitch was very soon to come home to me.” –Anthony Dawson (Rambling Recollections)

Original Play Cast

Warner Brothers was going through a 3D phase at the time, and they expected Dial ‘M’ For Murder to be shot with this same process. Alfred Hitchcock agreed to this and began educating himself on the technical aspects that would be involved with the thirty-six day production.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’ll have to be a lot of changes when you’re working with 3D. The close-up, for instance, will have to be scraped completely. Can you imagine two normal sized heads on that big screen? They’d look like monsters. In that respect, 3-D will be more like a stage play. But when you’re showing a lot of people at once, 3-D will be very effective. If the whole movie industry goes the way of 3-D, there will be a lot more panoramic films and a lot less intimate stories. It will be marvelous, though, for tricks like squirting water out at the audience. And I think 3-D will be best when a movie is planned around these tricks instead of trying to fit them into a movie. I’d like to have a movie start this way: The screen is dark. There is no sound. All of a sudden a large hand reaches out and takes the audience by the throat. Think that would frighten you?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Prevue Magazine)

It is important to keep this particular quotation in context. When Prevue magazine asked Alfred Hitchcock for a quote about 3-D, he was in the midst of pre-production for Dial ‘M’ For Murder, which means that the master was in publicity mode. One doubts that the director would have been very enthusiastic about abandoning his usual technique, and those familiar with Hitchcock’s style might imagine the sound of worry in his voice when he announced that “the close-up, for instance, will have to be scraped completely.

As a matter of fact, this particular issue with the 3-D film worried many people in the industry. When Jack Warner viewed the dailies from Hondo (another 3-D picture), the lack of close-ups bothered him a great deal. Warner had invested quite a bit of money into the 3-D gimmick, and believed that this was the future of cinema. Robert Burks, the director of photography on Hondo would have disagreed with Warner on this particular issue.

Interestingly, Robert Burks was the photographer on Hondo. Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember that Burks was one of the director’s most important collaborators, and he would find himself working on Dial “M” for Murder using the same complicated 3-D cameras that were used for Hondo. Alfred Hitchcock would have to work hard to achieve his usual high standards, because these 3-D cameras had a lot of technical issues. It is fortunate that Hitchcock was never one to shy away from new challenges. As a matter of fact, he preferred to create creative and technical challenges for himself.

The wonderful thing about the 3-D in Dial “M” for Murder is that it wasn’t shot in the usual “gimmicky” manner. Instead, Hitchcock preferred to subtly compose his shots for depth. The 3-D effects merely enhanced his mise en scène. This is much more difficult than simply hurling items towards the lens, and it is more effective. The audience is never pulled out of the film. They are instead brought into the world of the film. The operatic attack on Grace Kelly makes magnificent use of the 3-D effect, but the action is integrated into the story in such a way that it never becomes distracting (even when the film is viewed flat).

3D

However, the process of actually shooting these things effectively in 3D was an enormous challenge. Even Grace Kelly (who wasn’t one to complain about such challenges) mentioned that the process was “like going into the boxing ring with your hands tied behind your back.” While the director never lost patience on the set, he felt that his hands were tied as well. He described what he called the “tremendous new challenges” of shooting in 3D in trade articles.

“It’s a big, gross, hulking monster. It’s heavy and immobile and frightening. Why–for one of my best scenes–where one of the leading players falls on a pair of scissors and kills himself–I couldn’t even get this–this–thing under the scissors to create the illusion of the audience falling on those scissors itself. But we licked it. We built a big hole right under the stage and submerged the camera–so even though there will be no rocks thrown out of the screen, I don’t think anybody will go home disappointed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Trade Interview)

There were other challenges as well. Extreme close-ups were impossible to shoot, and in order to get certain shots (such as a finger dialing a telephone and a close shot of a wrist watch), giant replicas had to be built. He had used this giant prop technique before in Spellbound. Alfred Hitchcock had always found creative ways to get the shots that he desired. He wasn’t one to settle.

Unfortunately, it turned out that these technical challenges were unnecessary. By the time that Dial ‘M’ for Murder was released, the public (and exhibitors) had become disenchanted with the 3D process. In the end, exhibitors were given a choice between the 2D and 3D prints, while marketing merchandise allowed the “3D copy to be eliminated.” The flat version of the film became much more popular, and the 3D version was soon pulled altogether.

Marketing Announcement

However, the popular claim that Dial ‘M’ for Murder wasn’t released in its original 3D version is absolutely untrue. There is all kinds of documentation to prove that this version of the film did receive a short lived theatrical release. As a matter of fact, most of the critics commented on the 3D elements in their reviews for the film.

Variety mentioned the 3D elements in their less than enthusiastic review, but didn’t comment on the quality of these elements.

“The melodramatics in Frederick Knott’s legit hit, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, have been transferred to the screen virtually intact, but they are not as impressive on film. Dial ‘M’ remains more of a filmed play than a motion picture, unfortunately revealed as a conversation piece about murder which talks up much more suspense than it actually delivers. The 3-D camera’s probing eye also discloses that there’s very little that’s new in the Knott plotting…

…There are a number of basic weaknesses in the setup that keep the picture from being a good suspense show for any but the most gullible. Via the performances and several suspense tricks expected of Hitchcock, the weaknesses are glossed over but not enough to rate the film a cinch winner.” –Variety (December 31, 1953)

The Hollywood Reporter was more receptive, and praised Hitchcock’s masterful use of 3D.

“…one of the few films in which 3D is a decided asset, even though not a single audience-participation gimmick is used. The extra-dimension, coupled with the way Hitchcock uses the camera, gives the impression that one is sitting in a theatre watching a stage play.” – Hollywood Reporter (April 27, 1954)

Time magazine’s review also focused on these aspects of the film.

Dial M for Murder (Warner) started out in 1952 as a British television drama, moved on to long, successful runs on the London stage and Broadway, and has now been made into a first-rate movie. Director Alfred Hitchcock, by shooting the film in three-dimensional WarnerColor, avoids the static quality common to many stage plays when transferred to the screen. The 3-D is used not so much for its shock value as to bring alive for moviegoers much of the theater’s intimacy and depth of movement.” -Time (May 24, 1954)

Interestingly, Bosley Crowther’s rave review for the New York Times doesn’t mention 3D at all, and one imagines that this is due to the fact that it was written a few months later than those previously discussed. One imagines that the 3D version had been pulled by this time.

“The planting and raising of goose-pimples requires a certain theatrical skill which makes no demands whatsoever upon the season of the year… And so we attach no significance to the fact that there happen to be two varieties of goose-pimple bushes blooming brightly hereabouts this June…

More standard and conventional of the bushes, now sprouting on the Paramount’s screen, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, cultivated on an ample cutting from the play. As a matter of fact, so similar is it to the popular melodrama of Frederick Knott that it might almost be suspected as a straight transplant from the stage. But the fine hand of Mr. Hitchcock as the goose-pimple horticulturist in the garden of motion pictures is evident all over it…

…The thing is that Mr. Hitchcock brings his crop of goose-pimples to flower when he’s building up to that murder and then switching the tables in the clutch. This is when the audience is made to break out in chilly bumps and the tension is drawn so tightly that one can almost feel it in the throat. It’s an ugly, gory encounter, one of the toughest Mr. H has ever staged. The rest of the picture is exciting, but entirely because of plot.

Credit the veteran director with keeping the whole thing on the move, without letting interest slacken, within the confines of virtually one room. He tried once before, in Rope, to build up a whole continuous drama in one set. He wasn’t as successful in that venture. Dial ‘M’ has all the space it needs, Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and John Williams — the latter, especially, in the role of a sharp-nosed detective — play it capably. Color adds lots of style.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, June 13, 1954)

One would think that the London Times would embrace this film adaptation of a London stage play, but the paper published one of the films more negative reviews.

“Mr. Frederick Knott’s thriller Dial ‘M’ for Murder, written for television and afterwards adapted for the stage, has now reached the screen and is to be seen at the Warner Cinema. In each transition it seems to have undergone the minimum of alteration for a different medium. For this there is one main reason: the ingenious plot is necessarily tied down to a single room and to long passages of verbal duelling between any two or three of the five characters who are virtually the entire cast. Even in the cinema there are very few opportunities for the action to get out and about, and the dependence of the film on words makes it unusually difficult for Mr. Alfred Hitchcock to give the production as a whole his characteristic subtle touch.

How satisfactory it would have been if Mr. Hitchcock had created that sense of claustrophobia which would have enabled the audience to share the mixture of exhilaration and fear in the criminal on the alert which is one of the curious pleasures to be had from watching detective films. The use of colour, too, hardly helps; the bright interior simply refuses to brood. But the real difficulty with which Mr. Hitchcock has to deal is only apparent in the final scene. What made Dial “M” for Murder the most successful play of its kind since Ten Minute Alibi 20 years ago was the ingenuity of the puzzle we are invited to solve; at what point has the homicidal husband (Mr. Ray Milland) made his fateful mistake? In the cinema the director’s problem is how to preserve the puzzle in all its ingenuity and how to serve at the same time, as far as possible, the peculiar requirements of the film. It may be that there is no perfect reconciliation of the two; that a kind of exercise in applied mathematics and the emotional tension of the chase are fundamentally incompatible; and that the best that may be hoped for is a compromise. At all events Mr. Hitchcock’s many admirers will be disappointed to find that in his care to be lucid he has merely become obvious and thus weakened the crowning effect of the tension so carefully built up in the rest of the film. Mr. Robert Cummings is the writer of crime stories, and Mr. John Williams the all-important police-inspector, a policeman in whom, for once, one can believe.” -The Times (July 19, 1954)

I think that it is safe to say that The Times has been proven wrong by the most important critic of all: the test of time. A viewing of this film in 3D reminds one that there is no such thing as “minor Hitchcock.”

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork, and the case is protected by a special slip cover with the same artwork rendered in 3D. It is an extremely attractive cover (much better than the covers for Universal’s Hitchcock Blu-ray releases).

The menus utilize the same attractive artwork and are easy to navigate. The telephone sounds that play over the menu aren’t necessary, but this is a minor complaint.

Dial M Menu 1

All of this makes the presentation slightly superior to what one would usually expect from a Blu-ray release.

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers has given Dial ‘M’ for Murder a well-deserved 4K restoration using the film’s original camera negative, and this transfer is the result of these efforts. There were massive obstacles that had to be overcome in their efforts to restore the film properly. One must remember while judging that the film’s original elements weren’t error free, and that various players will give different results that vary in quality. All in all, Warner Brothers has done a fantastic job on the transfer. However, it should be said that it is far from perfect. The trouble is the fault of the source elements, but people are still bound to be a bit disappointed.

The color is faithfully (if not perfectly) represented here, and there seems to be no DNR issues. Instead, the transfer has opted to retain the film’s grain structure. Any ghosting that one might experience is likely due to the player and not to the actual image transfer. There was only a brief moment of ghosting when it was viewed on my player. There is some minor haloing in some of the higher contrast shots, but this is never distracting. Both the 3D and flat versions of this film exhibit much better image quality than the previous DVD release, especially when it comes to the film’s color palette.

The 1.78:1 aspect ratio used for this transfer will probably bother a lot of people. Previous DVD editions carried a 1.33:1 transfer that claimed to preserve its “original theatrical” ratio. This is untrue. Dial ‘M’ For Murder had the misfortune of being released during a transitional period in cinema history.

Academy Ratio

“Dial ‘M’ For Murder” was released during a transitional period in film history. Some theaters were not equipped to project the film in the intended 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, and these theaters projected the film in the Academy 1.37:1 ratio. Previous Home Video transfers were presented in 1.33:1, which is an approximation of this ratio.

Blu-ray Ratio

High end theaters were able to project the film in 1.85:1 widescreen format, which was the ratio that the studio intended. This Blu-ray transfer is presented in 1.78:1 ratio (the size of widescreen television sets). This ratio falls somewhere between the film’s two theatrical ratios.

Warner Brothers began releasing their films in 1.85:1 widescreen on May 07, 1953. However, studios were aware that some theaters hadn’t yet converted to the wider screens. Because of this, shots were composed for both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 ratios. In other words, Dial “M” for Murder was screened in both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1.

The Blu-ray presents the film in 1.78:1, which falls somewhere in between these two ratios. It would be impossible to release the film in any definitive aspect ratio for the simple reason that there isn’t one.

Screenshot 3.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix is free of any of the age related anomalies that often pop up in classic films and the tracks dynamic range allows the various sounds a lot of space to breath. It is a dialogue heavy track that showcases each and every voice quite clearly. Sound effects are accurately rendered, and the music is accurately rendered. It isn’t a particularly dynamic track, but it serves the film admirably.

Robert Cummings.jpg

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

It seems rather ridiculous that this Blu-ray should exclude 3D: A Brief History, which was included on the DVD release. After all, this Blu-ray is the first time that this film has been made available in the 3D format! Doesn’t it seem like a rather fitting supplement for this disc? Luckily, Warner Brothers didn’t forget to include the other two supplements from that release.

Hitchcock and Dial M – (SD) – (21:37)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentaries for Alfred Hitchcock’s Universal catalog were usually stellar, and extremely comprehensive. Unfortunately, the quality of his work seems to have diminished by the time he created the “making of” supplements for the director’s Warner Brothers catalog.

Hitchcock and Dial M is far from comprehensive. The interview participants include Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, M. Night Shyamalan, Richard Franklin, Richard Schickel, and Nat Benchley. None of these people have any real first-hand knowledge about the production (except for perhaps Patricia Hitchcock), so the viewer is treated to various historians and critics spewing conjecture while providing the rare grain of trivia. This is a far cry from Bouzereau’s in-depth documentaries for many of the Universal films. Perhaps this was unavoidable. After all, the principal cast members of Dial “M” for Murder had all passed away by the time this program was produced. It is just too bad that the participants didn’t provide a more in-depth account of the production based on research (since first-hand accounts were out of the question). Hitchcock and Dial M is certainly worth watching, and it is an entertaining conversation about the film. It is simply a little anemic.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:38)

The theatrical trailer for Dial M” for Murder is exactly what one might expect from trailers of this period. It isn’t as interesting as some of the director’s other trailers, but it is quite nice to see how this film was marketed.

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

It is nice that Dial “M” For Murder has finally seen a 3-D release on home video. Fans of the director should certainly want to own it.

Advertisements

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.

Screenshot 1

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.

Screenshot 2

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.

Screenshot 3

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.

Screenshot 4

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.

Screenshot 5

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.

Screenshot 6

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-Ray Review: To Catch a Thief

Cover-big

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Release Date: March 06, 2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:46:32

Video: 1080P (AVC High@L4.1, 23.976fps, 23.8GB)

Main Audio:

2.0 Stereo English – TrueHD (AC3 2.0, 16bit, 48kHz, 224kbps)

The Original Mono English Soundtrack – TrueHD (AC3 2.0, 16bit, 48kHz, 224kbps)

Alternate Audio:

French Stereo (AC3 2.0, 16bit, 48kHz, 224kbps)

Portuguese Stereo (AC3 2.0, 16bit, 48kHz, 224kbps)

Spanish Stereo (AC3 2.0, 16bit, 48kHz, 224kbps)

Subtitles: English, English (hard of hearing), French, Portuguese & Spanish

Ratio: 1.78:1 (16:9)

Bitrate: 38Mbps

Notes: This title has had several DVD releases. The best of these is the 2-Disc Centennial Collection release.  

sc3-

“Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense…I deliberately photographed Grace Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classical, beautiful, and distant. And then, when Cary Grant accompanies her to the door of her hotel room, what does she do? She thrusts her lips right up to his mouth.” –Alfred Hitchcock

Frances Stevens’ pursuit of John Robie is perhaps given more attention in the film than Robie’s pursuit of the real cat burglar, but few will complain. To Catch a Thief is gorgeous beyond description and notably risqué in its elegant wit and humor. Scholars often write the film off as “lesser” Hitchcock, but the film enjoyed a good deal of success upon its release. It is true that this film does not have the depth that films like Vertigo enjoy, but it is solid entertainment and required viewing.

sc4-

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

To Catch a Thief is housed in the standard blue case with attractive cover art that improves upon its various DVD releases. This case is protected by a slipcover with the same artwork.

 The menu itself is static, but lovely with accompaniment from Lyn Murray’s score.

 Menu

Menu2

Menu3

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Robert Burks’ Oscar winning cinematography has never looked more beautiful on home video. To Catch a Thief was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film to employ the VistaVision process, and the added resolution seems to have helped in Paramount’s high definition transfer of the film. The colors seem accurately presented and never look awkward (even Cary Grant’s tan looks natural). Blacks are solid without crushing detail. Grain never seems to overwhelm the amazing detail that this high definition transfer reveals. There is a single shot during the costume gala that looks both soft and grainy, but this seems to be inherent in the source material. The troublesome moiré effect on Grant’s striped shirt that overwhelms the picture in previous home video releases of the film is all but nonexistent in this transfer. Aliasing can be an occasional issue, but is never terribly distracting. There is nothing about the transfer that should discourage fans from purchasing the disc.

sc13-

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Paramount should be applauded for offering not only a True HD 2.0 Stereo soundtrack, but also the film’s original Mono soundtrack in TrueHD. Although the audio seems rather unimpressive by today’s standards, any issue one finds with the film’s audio presentation will likely be due to the age of the film. The audio is clean without much (if any) noise or distortion and dialogue is always clear and intelligible. Lynn Murray’s score also sounds better than I have ever heard it on home video. My issues with the sound are all source related and stem from the dubbing of Charles Vanel’s dialogue. Even this is a minor complaint.

sc8-

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The large collection of special features included with the 2-Disc Centennial Collection DVD release of the film have been ported over to the Blu-ray. There is over ninety minutes of wonderful features included on the disc in addition to the commentary track. Paramount offers audiences quite a bit of bang for their buck with this release. There are no Blu-ray exclusives, but the supplements included pretty much exhaust the subject and leave little else to be said about the film.

Feature Length Commentary Track from Dr. Drew Casper

This Drew Casper track is more analytical and does not go into any depth about the actual production itself. The dry delivery might turn a few people off, but his analysis of the film remains interesting.

Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief(SD) – (00:09:04)

This featurette focuses on the writing and casting of the film and is thoroughly interesting and informative.

The Making of To Catch a Thief (2002) – (SD) – (00:16:54)

The Making of ‘To Catch a Thief’ focuses on the actual production through the release of the film.

Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation – (SD) – (00:07:33)

This is a more personal look at Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief that contains interesting home movies of Hitchcock. It is revealed that the director liked vacationing in the south of France along with other relevant details. This piece is slightly less informative, but remains of interest to fans. Most of the information covered in this piece is covered in other supplements as well.

Unacceptable Under the Code: Film Censorship in America – (SD) – (00:11:49)

This is an interesting short about the history of the production code and how it affected To Catch a Thief.

A Night with the Hitchcocks – (SD) – (00:23:22)

Dr. Drew Casper hosts a Q&A session with Patricia Hitchcock and Mary Stone at the University of Southern California. It is interesting to hear Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughter discuss the more personal aspects of the director’s life.

Edith Head: The Paramount Years (2002) – (SD) – (00:13:44)

This featurette is a staple of Paramount home video releases (and for good reason). It discusses the fabulous costume designer, Edith Head. It has special relevance here, because To Catch a Thief was her favorite of the films that she worked on.

Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly – (SD) – (00:06:13)

A brief discussion on the film’s two stars focuses more on Grant than on Kelly. It relays some interesting information about the stars, but is not very comprehensive.

If You Love to Catch Thief, You’ll Love this Interactive Travelogue – (SD)

This is essentially a set of short clips discussing the various locations used in the film. Footage from To Catch a Thief is used to illustrate the information.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (HD) – (00:02:13)

This is very similar in style to other theatrical trailers of the period.

Photo Galleries – (HD)

There are quite a few production photos and promotional materials to look through in a sort of slide style presentation.

sc10-

Final Words:

To Catch a Thief is even more delightful in high definition.

Reviewed by: Devon Powell