Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Night Train to Munich – The Criterion Collection

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Spine #523

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 06, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 1:35:19

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Linear PCM Mono Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

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

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“At a neighborhood theater where it was showing the other night, I saw six of our prominent directors and Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Walter Pidgeon and Claudette Colbert in the audience.  You know this is the picture of which Winston Churchill asked to have a special showing.  If you miss it, don’t say.  Marlene Dietrich, Joe Pasternak and Alfred Hitchcock also went to see it.  And Walter Winchell, one of America’s most widely syndicated columnists, described the film as ‘a dazzler.’  The ice it puts on your spine is brand new.” –Hedda Hopper (Los Angeles Times)

Brand new? Perhaps Hopper missed Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. In fact, Night Train to Munich is often described as an unofficial sequel to the Hitchcock film. Critics were certainly fond of pointing out the similarities:

“…It may suffer because of the inevitable comparisons that will be drawn to The Lady Vanishes, with which it has several factors in common… Made by the same British studio that turned out [The] Lady Vanishes, the film also has the same general subject matter, the same screenplay writers, Margaret Lockwood in the femme lead, and even makes similar use of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as two tourist Englishmen with a ludicrous interest in cricket…” –Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

charters-and-caldicott-in-the-lady-vanishes-cricket-test-match-cancelled-due-to-floods

Charters and Caldicott in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”

 The appearance of Charters and Caldicott (Radford and Wayne) provide an undeniable thread between the two films that is impossible to ignore. However, the duo seems to have learned something from their ordeal in The Lady Vanishes.

“…In The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott are the men who hold the key to the mystery of the title – and yet refuse to yield it and save the heroine. Iris Matilda Henderson, played by Margaret Lockwood, is a young socialite travelling back to London to be married to a drearily well-connected fiancé. A few hours into the journey, she suspects that her sanity has deserted her. She’s certain that she has just had tea in the dining car with Miss Froy, a friendly septuagenarian with oatmeal tweeds and a pleasantly crumpled face. But now the old lady has gone missing, and nobody on the train will admit to having seen her…

…Charters and Caldicott know that Miss Froy was on the train. They met her in the dining car, when Charters was using sugar cubes to plot out a contentious moment from a legendary England-Australia test match. (The names of the players suggest that it’s from the notorious ‘Bodyline’ tour of 1932-33.) Asked by Iris to recall the incident and prove that Miss Froy was more than a figment of her imagination, Charters and Caldicott play dumb, afraid that any admission will delay their progress to view some leather-on-willow action at Old Trafford. ‘We were deep in conversation,’ snaps Charters. ‘We were discussing cricket.’ Iris is baffled and disgusted. ‘I don’t see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people,’ she protests. Charters’ portcullis crashes down. ‘Oh, don’t you?’ he bristles. ‘Well, if that’s your attitude, obviously there’s nothing more to be said. Come, Caldicott.’ They disappear – and Iris is consigned to hours of mental agony…

… Spiritually, the pair’s journey is from self-absorbed triviality to uncompromising engagement with the enemy. At the beginning of the picture, they are models of insular indifference – by the last reel, their revolvers are blam-blam-blamming away as soldiers surround their stranded railway carriage, and Charters is nursing a bloody gunshot wound. It’s a version of the journey made by many British people at the end of the 1930s…” –Matthew Sweet (The Guardian, Mustard and Cress, December 29, 2007)

The characters were essential to the audiences understanding of the film as a parable about British complacency and appeasement, and their evolution in the Hitchcock film seems to be carried into Stephen Gilliat and Frank Launder’s Nazi-baiting script for Night Train to Munich. Charters and Caldicott are still self-absorbed (their initial reaction to England’s declaration of war is frustration over the inconvenience of having loaned golf clubs to someone in hostile territory), but they are now willing to stick their necks out for the greater good (even if it is an inconvenience).

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Charters and Caldicott in Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich”

The comic duo is introduced rather late in the film (during the titular train sequence), and one is led to believe that they are merely comic relief.  However, it soon becomes clear that they will play an important role in the story from this point forward. While in The Lady Vanishes, they decide to stay mum about having seen Miss Froy so as not to be inconvenienced, in Night Train to Munich they go out of their way to help Randall when he overhears that the Nazis plan to arrest him once the train reaches Munich. The film’s happy ending is a direct result of their efforts.

Reed’s thriller seems to have entered into relative obscurity in recent years, but it was quite successful upon its release in the month of August of 1940. British exhibitors were more than happy to program the film, and the public rewarded them by packing the theaters. However, when it was time to release the film in America in late 1940/early 1941, exhibitors were reluctant to gamble on the picture.

“In the absence of name stars, Night Train [as the film was re-titled] was passed up, first run by most of the leading circuits. So the management of the Globe Theater, on Broadway, booked the film, gave it good advanced exploitation—and the result is now a matter of record. Night Train is in its sixth week, and continuing. Exhibitors elsewhere are ‘discovering’ it…” –Variety (February 05, 1941)

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The film would eventually run for fifteen weeks in New York, and it was a resounding critical and box-office success. A rave review published in Variety encapsulates critical attitudes towards the film:

 “…Much of the film’s merit obviously stems from the compact, propulsive screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and the razor-edge direction of Carol Reed. [The] story by Gordon Wellesley opens in the tense days of August 1939 with a Nazi espionage agent in London recapturing two Czechs who have escaped from a concentration camp, an aged armor-plate inventor and his pretty daughter… [The] yarn is not only told without a single letdown, but it actually continues to pile up suspense to a nerve-clutching pitch. The headlong chase and escape at the end is a time-tested melodramatic device superbly handled.

Reed’s direction is worthy of the best thrillers of Edgar Wallace, for whom he was for many years stage manager… The English are traditionally masters of melodrama, and Night Train is a representative achievement. And, incidentally, it should prove better propaganda than a truckful [sic] of exhortative pictures.” –Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

Of course, no one overlooked the film’s obvious similarities to The Lady Vanishes (and no one should), but one wonders if this connection between the two films hasn’t resulted in a cooler contemporary opinion of Night Train to Munich. Today, the film is seen either as a mildly amusing footnote in Carol Reed’s career, or as a clumsy distant cousin to The Lady Vanishes. A recent review published in Slate magazine comes to mind:

“Unlike the Master of Suspense, who shot The Lady Vanishes two years before Night Train to Munich, Reed at this point in his career was too green to know how to direct his actors to make the whip-smart Nazi-baiting puns in Night Train to Munich work; many of his lesser actors plow through their lines when they should be giving them a proper setup. Compounded by the fact that he also didn’t quite know how to shoot action scenes (too much time wasted between shots), that indelicate touch prevents much of Gilliat and Launder’s bubbly patter from taking off in the same way it does in The Lady Vanishes.” –Simon Abrams (Slate, June 21, 2010)

This reviewer finds himself in agreement with Mr. Abrams, but it seems unfair to expect the film to stand up against some of Reed’s later efforts and what might be Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular British film. How could Night Train ever hope to compete with all of these wonderful classics? It is much better to simply view the film on its own terms without bringing anything else into the equation.

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The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Eric Skillman’s original artwork is brilliantly conceived and surpasses the film’s original one sheet artwork. A fold-out pamphlet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp (film critic) is also included.

The disc’s menus utilizes a slightly adjusted version of Skillman’s artwork with accompaniment from the film’s score.

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There does seem to be one unfortunate mistake made here, as the word “to” is omitted from the title.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Night Train to Munich is over 76 years old, but Criterion’s transfer makes the print look a few years younger. As is their usual practice, the film’s restoration was detailed in the pamphlet provided in the disc’s case:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 2K DataCine from a 35mm duplicate negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and the Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management” –Liner Notes

These efforts haven’t been in vain. The 1080p transfer is surprisingly pristine with excellent depth and features an incredible amount of detail. Contrast and brightness also seems to be well rendered without any troublesome enhancements to complain about. The print does have a few very minor scratches, but most of the prints imperfections have been masterfully removed without compromising the integrity of the picture in any way. All of this plays under a subtle layer of consistent grain that betrays the films source. If minor flaws exist, they occur in the source print. An obvious example would be scenes featuring stock newsreel footage, but this merely adds to the film’s texture.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s Linear PCM Mono track is surprising in its clarity and rarely sounds thin. Dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout the track as well. As is usual with Criterion discs, the sound was given a restoration as well.

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 3mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX 4.” -Liner Notes

The result is an authentic audio track that isn’t marred by any distracting anomalies.

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Special Features:

2 of 5 MacGuffins

Conversation with Peter Evans and Bruce Babington – (29:22)

Criterion seems to have cursed itself with an unequalled reputation for quality transfers and a generous helping of supplemental features that are both informative and engaging. Cinephiles spend weeks going through the hours of fascinating features that are included on Criterion releases. Unfortunately, it is sometimes impossible to live up to these unbelievably high standards.

 There are occasions when a film is too old and obscure to find much in the way of supplemental material. Night Train to Munich is such a title. One might hope for a documentary about Carol Reed’s career and/or a program about the collaboration between Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, but it seems that these things were not available to them.

That Criterion has managed to produce anything at all for this film is evidence of their devotion to the films that they release and to the fans that consume them, and this dialogue between Evans (author of Carol Reed) and Babington (author of Launder and Gilliat) was well worth their trouble. It is worth noting that Criterion hosted this discussion on an actual train. The scholarly conversation covers topics such as Carol Reed’s direction of the film (and is subsequent career), the contributions of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and even the sociopolitical climate in which the film was produced. It might not be the comprehensive glimpse into the film that one might hope for, but it should enhance one’s appreciation for the film.

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Final Words:

While this early Carol Reed effort is mostly remembered for its connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, it should be seen and enjoyed on its own terms. The sharp wit and furious pace keeps the audience involved, and there are certainly worse ways to spend a rainy evening. Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film carries a surprisingly clean image and sound transfer that represent a major upgrade from their earlier DVD release.

Review by: Devon Powell

one-sheet

Source Material:

Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

Hedda Hopper (Los Angeles Times)

Uncredited Staff (Variety, February 05, 1941)

Matthew Sweet (Mustard and Cress, The Guardian, December 29, 2007)

Simon Abrams (Night Train to Munich, Slate, June 21, 2010)

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Psycho IV: The Beginning

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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)

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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

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Spine #828

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.

SS1

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

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 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)

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Bicycle Thieves – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 374 

BD Box Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA) 

Release Date: March 29, 2016 

Region: Region A

Length: 1:29:27

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: Italian Mono LPCM (48kHz, 24-Bit)

Alternate Audio: English Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 Kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.96 Mbps

Notes: Criterion has also released a DVD edition of this title.

title

“My aim, I have said, was to reintroduce the dramatic into quotidian situations, the marvelous in a little news item, even in the smallest news item, considered by most people throwaway material.” -Vittorio De Sica

The story of Bicycle Thieves probably wouldn’t be printed in any major newspaper if it had happened in real life. Editors would consider it “throwaway material.” After all, newspapers tend to give facts void of any real emotion. Journalists rarely get into the really interesting aspects of their stories. The humanity is hidden somewhere between the words, but we fail to grasp it because it isn’t made concrete. These human elements must be inferred by the sensitive reader. This is where cinema can be superior. Humanity can be found in every single action that a character does (or doesn’t do) on the screen. Even a look or expression can contain limitless drama. The true strength of neo-realist masterpieces like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is in the simplicity of the story. Audiences aren’t wasting their attention on complex plot detail, and this frees them to absorb the humanity inherent in every character.

Bicycle Thieves is a textbook example of neo-realism. It is the simplest of stories but contains complex human emotions. A synopsis of the story wouldn’t hint at the raw emotion and brutal honesty that overwhelms nearly every frame. The film was perhaps too honest for the Italian public, because it wasn’t particularly successful in its home country. However, the rest of the world certainly took notice. American critics were unanimous in their praise of Bicycle Thieves, and the film won the Academy Award in 1949 for the Best Foreign Language Film. This is certainly ample evidence to suggest that Hollywood was paying attention.

Vittorio De Sica

Vittorio De Sica while shooting “Bicycle Thieves” on location:  “We sought to redeem our guilt… We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were, and to seek salvation.” -Vittorio De Sica

What is especially surprising is the effect that it had on Alfred Hitchcock. The director had a nasty habit of making slightly disparaging remarks about neo-realism to the press, but this was simply a ruse that he used in order to explain the difference between the kind of films that he made and the new trend of realism that invaded many Hollywood productions after the success of Italy’s neo-realistic efforts. (This trend was extended after the later success of the French New Wave).

Charles Thomas Samuels once interviewed Hitchcock and in an attempt to make a point about how other cinematic methods could also be quite effective, he used Bicycle Thieves (a.k.a. The Bicycle Thief) as an example. Hitchcock evaded the argument.

“You’ve got to remember that The Bicycle Thief wasn’t a success with the Italian audience… We have a home in Northern California, and in the period of The Bicycle Thief, we happened to have an Italian couple working for us who spoke not one word of English. One day my wife and I took the mother and her daughter into San Francisco, where my wife and the girl had to do some shopping. Since I didn’t know what to do with Mrs. Chiesa, I decided to take her to see The Bicycle Thief. It was an Italian movie, I thought it might interest her. There was a knot of about twenty people in the theater—it was a road show, I remember, at the Geary—and we watched the film. Do you know, she only gave one exclamation the whole time: when the father cuffed the little boy. So when we got outside, I asked her how she’d liked it. She said, ‘Okay. But why didn’t he borrow a bicycle?’ Of course, she demolished the whole thing. So I said, ‘Mrs. Chiesa, what films do you like’ ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘I like a Betty Grable musical.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Encountering Directors, an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, 1972)

This anecdote is misleading. It suggests that Hitchcock wasn’t fond of the film, when this was far from the case. One will notice that he substitutes his housekeeper’s opinion for his own. This is because his opinion would have allowed Samuels to make his point, because Hitchcock was actually quite impressed by the film. Patrick McGilligan commented on this in his biography of the director.

“In interviews, Hitchcock sometimes disparaged what he (and some critics) called ‘kitchen sink’ neorealism, telling the press that he and his Italian housekeeper watched Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in San Francisco one day, and that his housekeeper was half bored by the masterpiece. He didn’t always describe his own reaction, but he was impressed by the film, and once told the New York Times that The Bicycle Thief was a perfect double chase—physical and psychological. Hitchcock’s love for Italy was genuine; and he kept up with the postwar cinema there…” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

In fact, it was Hitchcock’s admiration for Italian neo-realism (particularly Bicycle Thieves) that inspired him to make The Wrong Man—a down to earth film about real people whose lives derail because of a false accusation. He also had planned to make a few other films inspired by Italian neo-realism (and perhaps the French New Wave) in the 1960s. Unfortunately, but these projects never made it into production.

It isn’t any wonder that Bicycle Thieves was a source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock. It has been a source of inspiration for countless directors since the film’s 1948 Italian release. What else can anyone expect from what is one of the few undisputed masterpieces of world cinema? De Sica’s masterpiece stands as one of the best films ever produced. The socio-political issues surrounding the story might be dated, but the basic truths in Bicycle Thieves will never go out of date. Critics still rave about the film, scholars still study it, and audiences are still moved by Antonio’s struggle to provide for his family and Bruno’s coming of age as he discovers hard truths about life.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 Stars

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 quite as fabulous as one might expect from Criterion, but it is rather attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated book featuring an essay by Godfrey Cheshire and reminiscences by Vittorio De Sica and his collaborators. This booklet is actually special enough to set this release apart from most Blu-ray titles.

Menu

The disc’s menus are also appropriate, attractive, elegant, and quite easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion’s is a 4K digital restoration is presented at a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (which is higher and wider than most releases), which represents an uncropped version of De Sica’s masterpiece. The transfer was also presented at a higher bitrate (34.96 Mbps) than many Blu-ray releases. The image is absolutely stunning with a filmic texture that should please purists. Like so many Criterion transfers, this release reminds us just how gorgeous a black and white image can look on Blu-ray. Details are crisp and clear with an attractive and rich contrast that beautifully displays every shade of grey in between.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

The Italian Mono LPCM audio sounds as good as anyone has any right to expect and doesn’t have as many of the distracting flaws that are usually evident in films of this age. Those who aren’t familiar with Italian neorealist cinema might find fault with some of the film’s quirky dubbing techniques, but frankly this reviewer doesn’t remember any noteworthy dubbing issues. The soundtrack was well done by the filmmakers involved, and was lovingly restored by our friends at Criterion. There doesn’t seem to be any valid reason to nitpick.

An English Dolby Digital audio track is also included, but has not received the same loving restoration from Criterion. However, the track holds up pretty well (though it showcases a few flaws that the Italian track doesn’t).

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 Stars

*All Italian Language Documentaries include English Subtitles*

Working with De Sica(22:43)

Utilizing contemporary interviews with Suso Cecchi D’Amico (screenwriter – Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan), Enzo Staiola (actor – Bruno in Bicycle Thieves), and Callisto Cosulich (film scholar), this documentary is both informative and entertaining. These participants discuss De Sica and his work on the film. Staiola’s stories are particularly engaging when he discusses how he was cast in the film.

Cesare Zavattini – (55:42)

This 2003 documentary about screenwriter and longtime Vittorio De Sica collaborator, Cesare Zavattini, was directed by Carlo Lizzani. Many sources are interviewed for this informative look at Zavattini’s cinematic achievements (Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D, and others). It will add exponentially to the viewer’s appreciation of Bicycle Thieves, as well as their understanding on neorealism.

Life as It Is – (39:57)

This documentary featuring scholar, Mark Shiel, discuss the origins and qualities of Italian Neorealism and the seven films that Shiel believes are central to the movement. (Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti are all represented here.) His detailed explanation is usually pointed back to Bicycle Thieves without doing any disservice to the other films in question. This is an interesting and informative look at Italian cinema.

Each of these programs are excellent and add a wealth of value to this excellent Blu-ray release.

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Final Words:

Bicycle Thieves is without a doubt one of the best films ever produced, and its influence can still be felt today. De Sica’s masterpiece is an absolutely essential film that belongs in everyone’s collection, and Criterion’s Blu-ray is the best way to experience the film outside of a theater.

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Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s Bicycle Thieves page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/210-bicycle-thieves

Blu-ray Review: I Confess

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: February 16, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 01:34:27

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

2.0 French Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Castellano) Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Latino) Dolby Digital

2.0 Polish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish (Castellano), Spanish (Latino), Czech, Polish

Ratio: 1.37:1

Notes: This title was previously released (and is still available) in a DVD edition.

Title

“I feel that both I Confess and The Wrong Man suffer from a lack of humor. The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject. It seems to me that some of my British films were too light and some of my American films were too heavy handed, but it’s the most difficult thing in the world to get just the right dosage. It’s only after the film is done that one can judge that properly.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

I Confess does lack the humor that is usually present in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but this seems appropriate for the subject matter. It is based on what François Truffaut called “a very mediocre play” by Paul Anthelme entitled, “Nos Deux Consciences” (Our Two Consciences). It was a rather obscure play that was written in 1902, but it had elements that interested Hitchcock despite any dramatic weaknesses inherent in the property. Louis Verneuil was responsible for bringing the play to the director’s attention.

“Verneuil came along with this play, and I guess he must have done a good sales job, because I bought it! Now, when I buy a story, that doesn’t mean I’m taking on the theme as well. They tell me the story, and if I feel the subject is suitable and the situation lends itself to what I want, the theme of the film will be worked out later on.” –Alfred Hitchcock(Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The film was originally planned as a Transatlantic release before the production company crumbled. However, Warner Brothers bought the property from the company for Hitchcock to direct. A number of writers were courted to collaborate with Hitchcock—including Graham Greene (who couldn’t have been less interested). It seems that Victor Peers and Lesley Storm made a few early contributions to the scenario (though some of this was obviously tossed). Peers wrote a letter to Sidney Bernstein that discussed the trouble they were having with the script:

“Dear Sidney, We met last night—Hitch, Lesley Storm, Peggy Singer, and myself. Before Lesley Storm’s arrival, I sensed that Hitch wasn’t too happy with the story line, which is enclosed here. He did not care for the first scene at the Grandford home and the scene of the priest going to Malotte’s home is apparently out of the question from the Catholic point of view.

Lesley Storm, however, argued her point so well that Hitch was obviously most interested and suddenly turned to me and said that he would like her to return with him to CA and to work with him on the actual scenario…

…From my angle, Storm appears to be getting hold on the story and thinking constructively and, in clarifying the characterization, for example, she thinks that in their youth it is Ruth who is much more in love with Michel than he with her. He leans toward priesthood and it is because she is afraid that she may lose him that she gives herself to him in an effort to keep him.

It is the parents, of course, who destroy this plan.

This idea of characterization impressed Hitchcock very much indeed. The position then is that Storm will wait until the end of this week for word from you as to whether 1) she continues and 2) she goes to America.

Hitch is certainly very low in spirit… Moreover, he has been working continuously and late hours and undoubtedly needs a rest…” –Victor Peers (Letter to Sidney Bernstein – as reprinted in “Hitchcock’s Notebooks” by Dan Auiler)

It seems that Storm was discharged because she was uncommunicative with her collaborators. Hitchcock and Bernstein were left waiting to hear word from her after one of their script meetings. Storm was to work on the changes discussed in the meeting, and return a revised treatment. Weeks passed without any word from her.

Paul Vincent Carroll also worked on the project for a short time before Hitchcock finally commissioned George Tabori to collaborate with him. He got along quite well with Hitchcock during their collaboration, and the resulting screenplay seemed to satisfy both Hitchcock and Tabori. The script was a lot darker than the final film, and it had a number of controversial elements that were just begging to be eradicated by someone—be it the studio or the Catholic Legion of Decency. The screenplay ended with Father Logan being hanged for Keller’s crime (and only after his death was his innocence established). What’s more, the backstory involved an illegitimate child that Father Logan doesn’t know about! As anyone can guess, censorship won the day. Somehow, though, Tabori was bemused when changes had to be made. Actually, Hitchcock scholarship seems equally bemused. It seems that there are various opinions as to who censored the film.

Some scholars believe that the Catholic Church was responsible for the changes:

“…There was a hitch when Catholic authorities saw George Tabori’s original script and stopped all use of their churches in the city, because in the original draft Clift’s character was found guilty. Rather than fight the Catholic fathers, Hitchcock instructed Tabori to alter his script. Tabori later recalled, ‘I felt betrayed. I walked out in the middle of a story conference with the excuse of having to take a leak, went straight for the airport, to New York City, and never came back.’ Unworried, Hitchcock simply commissioned William Archibald to alter the script to his satisfaction.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

This version of events doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility, but there are those who insist that Warner Brothers was responsible for the alterations to the script:

“Bernstein took the lead in talks with religious authorities, seeking their approval; and surprisingly the Canadian Church found I Confess profoundly catholic—for the priest, in spite of his illegitimate child and execution, was greatly ennobled by the script. The Transatlantic partners wisely employed a local priest with a doctorate in theology, Father La Couline bridged the discussions with the Church, reading the script to authenticate the ecclesiastical reality and recommending trims to avoid censorship.

It was Warner Bros. that finally rebelled. For years Hitchcock had staved off the studio’s nervousness, hoping somehow to slip his ideas onto the screen. But as the midsummer start of filming loomed, Hitchcock was forced to circulate the latest script by Tabori, and studio officials were shocked to discover that the wrong-man priest still had an illegitimate child in the story—and still was destined to be executed at the end of the film. In late April, the studio put its foot down: it couldn’t produce such a film, which was bound to provoke an overwhelming outcry in America.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Some combination of both of these stories is probably true. Either way, it is certainly clear that Hitchcock was forced to change the script (and the director was probably even more disappointed than Tabori). This change altered what was originally a perfect allegory, although the similarities to the story of Christ are still quite obvious in the final film.

Archibald would be the final writer to work on the film, but there is ample evidence to suggest that Alma Hitchcock worked on the script along with the famed director and his writing team. In the end credit was given to Tabori and Archibald for the compromised final version of the screenplay. Of course, the script was simply one of many compromises concerning I Confess that would be forced upon Hitchcock before production commenced. One of the largest compromises concerned the casting of an actress to portray Ruth Grandfort. Jennifer Jones was discussed and the idea tossed before Hitchcock settled on his choice—and his choice wasn’t Anne Baxter.

Anne Baxter Publicity Photograph for I CONFESS

This is a publicity photograph of Anne Baxter that was used to promote “I CONFESS.” The actress was not Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred choice.

“I didn’t want Anne Baxter to play the feminine lead; I wanted Anita Bjork, who had played Miss Julie, However, Warner Brothers decided against her, sent Anita Bjork back to her fiords, and I was informed by a phone call that Anne Baxter had been assigned to the picture. I met her for the first time a week before the shooting, in a dining room of Quebec’s Hôtel Château Frontenac. When you compare Anita Bjork and Anne Baxter, wouldn’t you say that was a pretty awkward substitution?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The reason for Bjork’s dismissal is that she showed up with her lover and illegitimate child, and Warner Brothers didn’t want a scandal on their hands. (The Ingrid Bergman – Roberto Rossellini scandal was fresh in Hollywood’s mind.) Whatever one might think about Anne Baxter’s performance, we will agree that she doesn’t have quite the same qualities as Anita Bjork. It is difficult to believe that she is a part of Quebec society. Perhaps Hitchcock’s disappointment was palpable, because Baxter seemed to feel somewhat rejected by what she considered the director’s apathetic treatment of her. The director dyed the actress’s hair blonde and altered Bjork’s wardrobe to fit Baxter, but he was unable to turn her into a convincing Quebecer.

Anita Bjork (originally cast)

Alfred Hitchcock had originally cast Anita Bjork as his female lead. She was replaced, because Warner Brothers feared a scandal.

Many actors were discussed as being suitable to play the role of the tortured Father Logan (including James Stewart and Laurence Olivier), but it is difficult to picture anyone other than Montgomery Clift in this particular role. Of course, the process of actually working with Clift was not without its problems. The actor had many personal demons and a habit of trying to drown them in a bottle (or with narcotics). His neurosis were certainly problematic on the set of I Confess, and his particular working methods were at odds with Hitchcock’s.

“…Hitchcock had problems communicating with Montgomery Clift, who was then at the apogee of his career and steeped in the Method school of acting which was just manifesting itself in Hollywood… After Brando, Clift and James Dean were the foremost exponents of the method, which primarily meant that the actor got inside his character, and concentrated on motivation and background to deliver a fully rounded portrayal of the person, not just as the camera caught him for a specific scene, but where he had come from, where he was going, what impelled him to be there – the very antithesis of Hitchcock’s methods. Clift’s biographer, Robert LaGuardia, wrote that Hitchcock ‘simply couldn’t understand the fanatical intensity of Monty. He complained constantly about ‘all that preparation … Over and Over, Hitch had to stop and explain to Monty why, at the end of a certain scene he had to look up at a church or suddenly turn around. He wasn’t used to having to explain to his actors that he intended to edit in a shot of a clanging bell or some such event.’ The contrast between actor and director manifested itself early in the shooting, when blue-eyed Clift insisted on wearing brown contact lenses because the script stated that Father Logan’s eyes were brown. Hitchcock found this totally incomprehensible, not least because I Confess was shot in black and white.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

I Confess - Montgomery Clift and the Method

Montgomery Clift’s method acting sometimes conflicted with Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic style. The actor had trouble looking up so that Hitchcock could cut to his perspective during this series of shots.

Hitchcock’s efforts certainly weren’t in vain. Clift really adored the script—the original script that ended in the Father Logan’s unjust execution. He began preparing for the role with enthusiasm and spent a week doing research in a monastery before filming. Unfortunately, he was less enthusiastic about the changes that had been made to the script when he arrived in New York for his camera tests. He was at least in agreement with his director on this issue (not that it did either one of them any good).

There were other minor issues concerning Montgomery Clift that perturbed Hitchcock, but none that caused the director any real aggravation.

“Clift had his drama coach, Mira Rostova, close by at all times; she had been made part of his contract, and was umbilically attached to his performance. Rostova rehearsed with the sensitive actor daily, and then stood just out of sight whenever cameras rolled. Clift waited for her nod of approval, not Hitchcock’s, before moving on. [Karl] Malden thought that Rostova’s presence created ‘a deep division and tension’ on the set, a gulf between the star and the director—but if so it remained a largely unspoken gulf. Hitchcock left Clift and Rostova alone… If anything, Hitchcock was extraordinarily patient, exceptionally polite, as he went about collecting his shots and angles.

The director realized that, if anything, Rostova helped the production by soothing Clift’s wounded psyche. Although Hitchcock dubbed her the ‘little pigeon,’ he treated the drama coach with elaborate courtesy, and made a point of including her in the cast dinners he hosted at the Château Frontenac in August and September, and later at Bellagio road.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Chances are that Rostova’s presence was a larger thorn in Malden’s side than in Hitchcock’s. The actor felt that Clift and his coach were somehow conspiring against him. It is impossible to know whether or not this is the case, but the two friends had a cooler relationship on the set that was usual. Perhaps this is “the method” at play once again. After all, their characters were against one another in the film. In any case, Clift’s performance is extraordinary (even if several critics denigrated his performance upon the film’s release).

He seemed to embody the character of Father Logan. He is an actor that always seems to be hiding secret emotional wounds, and this characteristic was particularly appropriate for this role. Clift’s priest quietly carries his burden with a grace and dignity that should endear him to audiences. Truffaut pointed out that Father Logan is constantly in forward motion. This motion is part of the film’s design and illustrates visually the character’s integrity. It is impossible to think of any other actor pulling this off quite as effectively.

Hitchcock was always one to fill the frame with rich detail, but this fact has never been more evident that it is when one watches I Confess. Hitchcock even explained to one of the extras precisely how he wanted her to eat an apple in an angry mob scene. This is a detail that might very well be missed by casual viewers, but these small details were important to Hitchcock. Of course, most of the visuals fit a particularly interesting design that is often discussed by scholars.

The Apple Eater

Alfred Hitchcock showed the “apple eater” exactly how he wanted her to eat the apple.

“The film is rich in religious imagery. In one shot the camera catches Father Logan walking tormented past a Church, the camera placed high above one of the Stations of the Cross, as if making the point that Father Logan too is undertaking his own journey to Calvary. The film’s opening shot is an elliptically angled view of a looming church, darkly brooding and sinister. Clift’s lonely inner struggle to sacrifice himself rather than his beliefs is contrasted with the killer’s pathetic need to confess, as if by telling of his sin his guilt will be absolved.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Stations of the Cross

One wonders if Humphries is mistaking Quebec’s ‘Le Château Frontenac’ for a church. If he is, this doesn’t lead one astray. The city’s churches do loom large over the film. However, none of Hitchcock’s “religious imagery” is merely imagery. It is symbolism. Let us use the same example that Humphries uses of Father Logan walking tormented past a church as he is seen through a statue of Christ carrying his cross to his own crucifixion. Isn’t Father Logan carrying his own cross to his own crucifixion—and for the very same reasons (the burden of sins that aren’t their own)! He could very well die for someone else’s sin. This is a direct parallel to the story of Christ.

If this isn’t enough, Hitchcock uses another image during the trial sequence. Father Logan is being questioned by the prosecution, and a large crucifix hangs on conspicuously on the wall above him as he is shot in profile. This reminds audiences what might potentially happen to Logan, while reminding Logan about his own beliefs. It is an effective shot. The crucifix seems to be a weight on top of the priest throughout the entire rest of the sequence.

Crucifix & Father Logan at the Trial

Another particularly interesting bit of religious imagery occurs at the very beginning of the film. We see a man exit a building in a priest’s cassock before walking down an alley. Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks do interesting things with composition and lighting. The scene is lit in such a way that the man’s silhouette forms a cross. This is interesting enough, but the man also casts a long shadow in the shape of an inverted cross. This tells the audience that the man is pretending to be a Holy man of God, but that his real nature is perhaps malicious. The man turns out to be Otto Keller (the film’s murderer).

Cross Image in shadow

There are many such examples in the film. When one considers the film as an allegory that mirrors Christ’s crucifixion, it becomes clear why Alfred Hitchcock and George Tabori fought for the original ending. However, many scholars and critics believe that the film’s final ending is even more appropriate. Patrick McGilligan seems to side with these critics.

I Confess smolders without ever catching fire. Hitchcock is most comfortable with the secondary characters (the Brian Aherne scenes are especially playful), the brooding Quebec City and Catholic atmosphere, [and] the dreamlike flashback. (These silent interludes, depicting the idyllic prewar romance between the priest and his girlfriend, seem almost to achieve the kind of hyperrealism Hitchcock had wanted from Salvador Dalí for Spellbound.) Perhaps the best part of I Confess is the Hitchcockian ending—‘which is liturgically and thematically right (transference of guilt healed by confession),’ in Bill Krohn’s words—although it was virtually imposed by the studio as an alternative to hanging the priest.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Unfortunately, the film was released to somewhat disenchanted reviews. Warner Brothers made a small profit off of the film, but it was not the success that many other Hitchcock had been. Hitchcock later believed that making the film was a mistake.

“…Aside from the public, there were many of the critics who apparently felt that for a priest to guard a secret at the risk of his own life was absurd… If the basic idea is not acceptable to the public, it compromises the whole picture. And this brings up another generalization: To put a situation into a film because you yourself can vouch for its authenticity, either because you’ve experienced it or because you’ve heard of it, simply isn’t good enough. You may feel sure of yourself because you can always say, ‘This is true, [and] I’ve seen it.’ You can argue as much as you like, but the public and critics still won’t accept it… That’s the trouble with I Confess. We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice himself for such a thing.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

One shouldn’t take Hitchcock’s opinion on this particular matter as gospel. This reviewer isn’t Catholic and understood and admired the priest’s resolve regardless. It is difficult to say whether or not this was a valid argument. However, it should be said that the director was selling himself short when he went on to tell Truffaut that the film “comes under the heading of an old-fashioned plot.If anything, I Confess was years ahead of its time. One could imagine the likes of Martin Scorsese tackling just such a subject.

The critics didn’t care for the film upon its release. Variety’s staff critic did manage to summon some positive remarks about the film, but led in criticizing the film for its lack of the director’s trademark suspense.

“An interesting plot premise holds out considerable promise for this Alfred Hitchcock production, but I Confess is short of the suspense one would expect. Hitchcock used the actual streets and buildings of picturesque Quebec to film the Paul Anthelme play on which the screenplay is based…

…While Hitchcock short-changes on the expected round of suspense for which he is noted, he does bring out a number of topflight performances and gives the picture an interesting polish that is documentary at times. Clift’s ability to project mood with restrained strength is a high spot of the film, and he is believable as the young priest. Physically, he doesn’t have as mature an appearance as the role opposite Baxter calls for, but otherwise, his work is flawless.” –Variety (December 31, 1952)

Other critics were less kind to I Confess. It is evident that Bosley Crowther was too wrapped up in his personal expectations about what an Alfred Hitchcock should be to appreciate the dark story that the director had to offer. His review in the New York Times betrays a shallow mind that is nearly incapable of forward thinking. His review attacks everything from the script to Montgomery Clift’s wonderful performance. I suppose that the actor’s subtleties were lost on critics in 1953.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s famous talent for brewing a mood of fine suspense with clever direction and cutting is spent on a nigh suspense-less script in I Confess, his latest picture for Warners… And even though moments in the picture do have some tension and power, and the whole thing is scrupulously acted by a tightly professional cast, the consequence is an entertainment that tends to drag, sag and generally grow dull. It is not the sort of entertainment that one hopefully expects of ‘Hitch.’

The trouble, of course, is that the audience is told near the start of the film that the hero is not guilty of the murder with which he is subsequently charged. The murderer, we know, is a fellow who confesses his act right away to the irreproachable hero, a Roman Catholic priest. And the issue is in the dilemma of the priest, when suspicion falls on him and he is unable to clear himself in a jiffy because he is bound to silence by what is known as ‘the seal of the confessional.’

This makes for a nervous situation that George Tabori and William Archibald have prolonged through a considerable amount of incidental plotting in their obviously padded script. They have ominously piled against their hero so much heavy circumstantial evidence that it seems he can never get around it and avoid the penalty of loyalty to a creed. But only the most credulous patron will be worried for very long that the hero will not be delivered from his dilemma by some saving grace. And this realization well unburdens the situation of any real suspense… In short, the plotting of the story through its long middle section is dull.

Finally, the off-beat possibility of making something of the anguish of the priest in this unhappy situation is not only missed in the script but it is barely realized and suggested in the performance of Montgomery Clift. Under Mr. Hitchcock’s direction, Mr. Clift rather walks through the role with a slightly bewildered expression and a monotonously taciturn air. He seems neither tormented nor frightened—nor, for that matter, really to care.

As the matronly lady of the old romance, Anne Baxter gives an eloquent show of feeling sorry for herself and breathing heavily, but the ease with which she abandons both and resumes a dutiful attitude toward her husband (Roger Dann) is a bit disheartening. Karl Maiden as a stubborn detective, Brian Aherne as a prosecutor, O. E. Hasse as the twitching murderer and Dolly Haas as his wife are all good.

And, of course, Mr. Hitchcock does manage to inject little glints of imagery and invent little twists of construction that give the film the smooth, neat glitter of his style. Shot on location in Quebec, it has a certain atmospheric flavor, too. But it never gets up and goes places. It just ambles and drones along. Bosley Crowther (New York Times, March 23, 1953)

Well, we will admit that Mr. Crowther should know quite a bit about ambling and droning along if his reviews are any indication. This particular reviewer has never cared for him, so it is probably better to keep my commentary to myself. It would be highly biased. In any case, the film was met with similar criticisms in Hitchcock’s native London.

This film is directed by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock and it lacks two things normally connected with his name and work -first, that moment when he springs a surprise on the audience, a respectable man, as it were, suddenly rounding on a friend with a drawn revolver, and, secondly, the careful building up of suspense. Suspense, in a measure, there certainly is, and Mr. Hitchcock loses no time in making it clear what form it will take, but it is suspense without its mainspring…

…The wisdom of introducing, a sacred subject into a ‘thriller’ is dubious, and the film seems conscious of disturbance and disharmony at the centre of balance. A conventional chase through a luxury hotel is an admission of the failure of the original idea to survive intact, and never does Mr. Clift suggest a man in any touch with the things of the spirit…” –The Times (April 20, 1953)

Opinion hadn’t changed a great deal when Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky wrote The Films of Alfred Hitchcock in 1976. Instead of reanalyzing the film for a new generation, Harris and Lasky adopted Alfred Hitchcock’s apathetic attitude towards the film.

“The screenplay adaptation was somber and lacked the subtle humor found in most Hitchcock films. The result is that the story is both frustrating and tedious… Of course, the entire premise upon which the film rests is that a priest’s first obligation is to God and the holy vows of the church. It is precisely this concept that annoyed non-Catholic viewers. ‘Why wouldn’t he just speak up to save his life?’ is the question.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

One can wrap their minds around the director’s attitude towards the film. After all, it doesn’t represent his original vision. It is sometimes difficult for an artist to see beyond his own compromises. Actually, the film was further compromised in Quebec after the film was released. The Legion of Decency slapped it with a rating of ‘Morally Objectionable for Adults’ despite the fact that the Catholic press raved about the film. As a result, Quebec’s Censor Bureau insisted on cutting three minutes out of Anne Baxter’s flashback story. These little aggravations tend to add up in one’s mind. It probably became quite difficult for Hitchcock to look at I Confess in the proper perspective.

In the end, I Confess is another dark and deliberately paced Hitchcock offering. While it isn’t perhaps at the same level as other underappreciated works (such as The Wrong Man), it’s probably even more fascinating. It is certainly rich in subtext and one’s experience is enhanced exponentially with each viewing.

Confession - Father Logan 2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This artwork seems to utilize vintage promotional material (though it isn’t the same artwork used for the film’s original one sheet). It really looks quite fabulous!

The menu utilizes the same art that is on the cover, and it is accompanied by an excerpt from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score.

Menu

All of this makes for a presentation that is much better than what one usually expects with home video releases (especially for older catalogue titles).

Confession - Otto Keller

Picture Quality: 

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins 

This is an incredibly gorgeous transfer of I Confess. Fine detail that went unseen in the previous DVD release of the film can now be admired in all its intended glory. Contrast is also wonderfully rich with deep blacks that never seem to crush detail. The film has a noir-esque quality that demands well rendered blacks with a sharp rendering of all the shades of gray that lies in between the lightest and darkest areas of the frame. It is nice to see that the transfer doesn’t disappoint on this issue. There is a healthy layer of grain that betrays the film’s celluloid source, but many film buffs will see this as a good thing. It is certainly preferable to overzealous DNR. There doesn’t seem to be any distracting digital anomalies that could be distracting to the viewer. This is a truly lovely transfer.

Otto Confesses to Alma

Sound Quality: 

4 of 5 MacGuffins 

The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is surprisingly clean for a film released in 1953. Dialogue is consistently crisp and clear, and this is married with well rendered ambience and intelligible sound effects. This is important, because Alfred Hitchcock uses sound in very interesting ways. The sounds are realistic and draw viewers into the film. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is given adequate room to breathe for a 2.0 mix, but one must qualify this statement to indicate that one must consider when the film was shot. This isn’t the sort of dynamic track that one might expect to find on a Blu-ray release of a contemporary film. It is simply a faithful rendering of the film’s source elements.

Anne Baxter as Ruth

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Hitchcock’s Confession: A Look at ‘I Confess’ – (SD) – (20:39)

Laurent Bouzereau provides another quasi “making of” documentary that provides more commentary than actual “making of” information (although one can see a small amount of rare color “behind the scenes” footage of the cast and crew shooting the dream sequence). Pat Hitchcock even shares some brief memories about visiting the production in Quebec. However, this is really more of an appreciation of the film that slowly turns into a love letter to the late Montgomery Clift. Jack Larson (a friend of Clift’s) shares information about his friend’s experiences on the film as the other participants celebrate his performance. It is always engaging and certainly appreciated, and the generalized critical commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, Bill Krohn, Richard Schickel, and Robert Osborne might enrich the casual viewer’s appreciation of the film. It is certainly worth the viewer’s time.

Gala Canadian Premiere for ‘I Confess’ – (SD) – (00:56)

Warner Brothers also includes a vintage newsreel about the Canadian premiere of the film. One can see Alfred Hitchcock and Anne Baxter arriving at two different premieres. It is obviously a piece of vintage promotional fluff, but the vintage nature of the piece makes this a rather interesting addition to the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:47)

The trailer is also happily included on the disc. This is a rather typical example of trailers from this era, but many will be interested to see how the marketing department attempted to sell this film to audiences.

Father Logan

Final Words:

I Confess is for audiences with a predilection for dark allegorical mood pieces. While it isn’t a typical Hitchcock offering, it is well worth one’s time. Warner Brother’s new Blu-ray release is the perfect way to view the film on one’s home entertainment system.

Review by: Devon Powell

Father Logan - Otto Keller's Final Confession

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1952)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, March 23, 1953)

Staff Writer (The Times, April 20, 1953)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

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

Michael Haley (The Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

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

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

Blu-ray Review: Topaz

Topaz Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: November 05, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 143 min

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, 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.

Title Frame

“Well, to me, logic is dull… Of course, if you boil things down, everything must be logical… And there are complaints, consequently, about being too… you know, I’ve even heard some people say that doing a film like Topaz, which was a bestseller, and it deals with espionage during the [Cuban] missile crisis, where I’m not permitted, by the mere facts themselves, to deviate.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation – Channel 28, 1969)

There is a lot of talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s “creative decline.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a decline at all. It was a forced retreat. The director was still working under the tight reigns of Universal in 1969. The studio had set the director up in a cozy bungalow and had made him a very rich man. Unfortunately, they had also taken away his creative liberty and created an atmosphere that nurtured his creative decline (or what people perceive to be his creative decline). Their control of his creative ventures had driven his self confidence into exile.

Before the director made Torn Curtain, the studio had blocked one of the director’s dream projects; a new take on J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. After shooting Torn Curtain, Hitchcock had become excited about re-inventing the Hitchcock picture. He called his new project Kaleidoscope. (The project was later called Frenzy. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the 1972 film.)

Kaleidoscope was to be shot on actual locations using natural light, a handheld camera, and unknown actors. The script was shocking and extremely controversial. Hitchcock usually allowed audiences to relate to a likeable protagonist, but this new project would focus on the exploits of an attractive but vulnerable serial killer. Unfortunately, the script’s explicit and unflinching violence disturbed the suits at Universal. In “Hitchcock Lost and Found,” Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr summed up the situation in a single paragraph.

“…This new freedom of technique and of sexual explicitness led Hitchcock, with the help primarily of [Benn] Levy, and later others, to develop plans for the New York sex-murderer story, sadly blocked by Universal, that were bolder than anything ultimately realized in the London Frenzy. His experience with Universal in some ways echoed his experience with BIP: all sweetness and light to start with, but then frustratingly restrictive.” – Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr (Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films)

Frankly, Hitchcock was at his best when he was allowed complete control over his projects. When one looks at his early years at British International Pictures (where he was reduced to making projects that were assigned to him) and compares them with his films made with Gaumont/Gainsborough (where he was allowed to choose his own projects, and have control over them), it becomes clear that Alfred Hitchcock worked best when he worked in absolute freedom. His years at Universal offer further proof of this when one compares them with his years at Paramount (where he was usually given creative control over his own output).

In any case, it was felt that the avant-garde project didn’t have any commercial potential, and Hitchcock was convinced that he should abandon the project. If this had happened ten years earlier, he would have probably made the film with his own money (as he did with Psycho). Unfortunately, he agreed to drop the project for a more commercial venture… but what commercial venture?

“The obvious answer would come from Universal: what properties did they own which might be turned to his purposes? A rummage through the books and plays they had acquired came up with nothing very promising except Leon Uris’s sprawling and complicated espionage novel, Topaz. It was not ideal, and his previous essay in espionage and Iron Curtain politics had not been too happy. But it was better than nothing, and Hitch set to work with a will. Uris himself was involved in writing the screenplay, but Hitch did not see how he could use this, and was forced to go into production with nothing like his usual preparation… He was already in London picking locations when he decided to throw out the script he had, and cabled Sam Taylor, who had written Vertigo for him…” -John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)

Universal was to blame for pushing an unwritten project into production in order to finish in time for a September release. Samuel Taylor agreed to re-write the script, but it was still being prepared when the film went into production.

Topaz was not at all a typical Hitchcock production. We were writing scenes the night before filming, which Hitchcock didn’t like at all. The studio really put him in an awkward position.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

Filming certainly suffered from the rushed pre-production process, and the trouble would continue through post production. When test audiences hated the film’s original duel ending, Hitchcock shot an alternative ending that showed Jacques Granville boarding a plane to Moscow while André and Nicole Devereaux board a plane for Washington D.C. This ending raised a few eyebrows because Granville went unpunished, and it was felt that the French authorities would not accept this ending for a French release.

To prepare for trouble with the French authorities, Hitchcock prepared a third ending utilizing already shot footage that suggests that Granville goes home and commits suicide. The debate about which of the latter two endings should be used continued until it was finally decided to use different endings for different markets. However, production records suggest that Alfred Hitchcock preferred the Airport ending that shows Granville leaving for Moscow. He claimed that it was more true to life, and he even suggested hiding the suicide ending away so that it wouldn’t be used.

It is no wonder that Topaz is considered by many to be the director’s weakest American effort. The film was a box office failure, and failed to earn back its $4,000,000 budget. However, the film had some incredible moments that illustrate Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic brilliance (such as Juanita de Cordoba’s exquisite murder, and the excellent Pietà influenced post torture interrogation that lead to Juanita’s murder), and there were a number of critics that enjoyed Topaz.

Michelangelo's

Michelangelo’s “Pietà” was an obvious inspiration for a scene in “Topaz.”

This shot from

This shot from “Topaz” was obviously influenced by Michelangelo’s “Pietà.”

The review that was published in The Independent Film Journal was particularly kind.

“…The director is up to his old tricks, but they are still very good ones. An effective cast of mostly foreign players and a nicely complicated plot make the film thoroughly absorbing. Solid Box-office.

There will undoubtedly be those movie buffs who will argue that Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz is an echo chamber, [and] that everything in it has been done before by the master, and better. But after the malnutritious Marnie and Torn Curtain, it is a pleasure to find the director working with a densely plotted story-line. You have to keep on your toes during Topaz and that’s what makes it so enjoyable. The film is a thoroughly absorbing work, but an abrupt ending, meant probably to be ironic, has the effect of pulling the carpet out from under the viewer. As a commercial entry, the box office potential for Topaz is very strong; the Hitchcock name alone would be a crowd-puller, but this time he is also working with a pre-sold property; the Leon Uris novel his film was based on was an international best seller.

Topaz begins beautifully, and silently, with a sequence depicting a Russian KGB official, his wife and teenage daughter attempting to flee Copenhagen and defect to the Americans. They are trailed by Russian agents through a porcelain factory and the Den Permanente department store…

…Samuel Taylor’s screenplay has more than its share of cliché lines, but it also has its share of very amusing ones. It gets the characters on and off, and globe-trots efficiently enough, but two omissions are disturbing. We are never told just why Devereaux would risk everything for the American agent, and the arrival of Devereaux’s wife (Dany Robin) at the hide-out of Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli), suspected of being a member of the Topaz ring is a surprise, but an unexplained one.

In telling the complicated story, Hitchcock has supplied his usual touches. For a tortured woman’s inaudible whisper the camera rushes in to hear; Juanita’s murder is recorded by an overhead shot, and as her corpse collapses, the deep purple dress spreads out like blossoms of a flower; a seagull flying with an unusually large piece of bread in its beak giving away the fact there must be snooping picnickers nearby. Cameras glide up and down staircases, swoop onto mirrored reflections of the enemy’s face.

Seeing things rather than hearing them, has always been a favorite device of Hitchcock’s (Rear Window was practically devoted to it) and in Topaz it is again used. Instructions between Devereaux and his contact take place behind a florist’s refrigerator glass door; an important transaction at the Hotel Teresa is shown from across the street; and in a spacious conference room, the camera way up amidst the chandeliers, we watch as various consuls shift into groups, isolating themselves from the suspected traitor.

In the past Hitchcock has been hampered by casting his films with an eye toward box-office (Jane Wyman in Stage Fright, Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain, to name two), but in Topaz he has selected his players, mostly foreign actors, without using any “names.” The choices have been excellent ones, especially Frederick Stafford as Devereaux and the great looking Karin Dor as the doomed Juanita.” -The Independent Film Journal (December 9, 1969)

Vincent Canby went even further in his praise for the film. His review in the New York Times was titled, Topaz: Alfred Hitchcock at His Best.”

“It’s perfectly apparent from its opening sequence that no one except Alfred Hitchcock, the wise, round, supremely confident storyteller, is in charge of TopazTopaz, the code name for a Russian spy ring within the French Government, is the film adaptation of the Leon Uris novel, which itself was based on a real-life espionage scandal that kept both sides of the Atlantic busy in 1962.

Hitchcock sets his scene in a first act that dramatizes the defection of a high Soviet intelligence officer to C.I.A. officials in Copenhagen. The sequence, which lasts approximately 10 minutes and uses only a minimum of dialogue, is virtuoso Hitchcock, beginning with a dazzling, single-take pan shot outside the Soviet Embassy, then detailing the flight, pursuit through, among other things, a ceramics factory and the final safe arrival of the irritable Soviet official and his family aboard an American plane headed for Wiesbaden. The Russian’s only comment to the proud C.I.A. man: “We would have done it better.”

Topaz is not a conventional Hitchcock film. It’s rather too leisurely and the machinations of the plot rather too convoluted to be easily summed up in anything except a very loose sentence. Being pressed, I’d say that it’s about espionage as a kind of game, set in Washington, Havana and Paris at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, involving a number of dedicated people in acts of courage, sacrifice and death, after which the survivors find themselves pretty much where they started, except that they are older, tired and a little less capable of being happy.

Topaz is, however, quite pure Hitchcock, a movie of beautifully composed sequences, full of surface tensions, ironies, absurdities (some hungry seagulls blow the cover of two Allied agents), as well as of odd references to things such as Michaelangelo’s “Pieta,” only it’s not a Mother holding her dead Son, but a middle-aged Cuban wife holding her dead husband, after they’ve been tortured in a Castro prison.

Hitchcock, who can barely tolerate actors, has been especially self-indulgent in the casting of Topaz. The film has no one on the order of James Stewart or Cary Grant on which to depend, although it does use some fine character actors (Michel Piccoli, Phillipe Noiret) in small roles. Most of its performers are, if not entirely unknown, so completely subordinate to their roles that they seem, perhaps unfairly, quite forgettable…

…The people one remembers are those who are employed for the effect of their looks (John Vernon as a bearded Castro aide with brilliant blue eyes, Carlos Rivas as his bodyguard, a Cuban with remarkably red hair), or who are bequeathed vivid images by the narrative (Karin Dor as a beautiful anti-Castro Cuban who is shot for her efforts and collapses onto a marble floor, her body framed by the brilliant purple of her dress).

The star of Topaz is Hitchcock, who, except for his brief, signature appearance, remains just off-screen, manipulating our emotions as well as our memories of so many other Hitchcock films, including Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur and Torn Curtain, all inferior to Topaz. This is a movie of superb sequences that lead from a magnificent Virginia mansion to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, from an extraordinarily well-stocked Cuban hacienda to a small, claustrophobic, upstairs dining room in a Paris restaurant. Even architecture is important.

It’s also a movie of classic Hitchcock effects. Exposition may be gotten across by being presented either as gossip or as incidental, post-coital small talk. Conversations are often seen — but not heard — through glass doors. A Cuban government minister, staying at the Theresa, finds a misplaced state document being used as a hamburger napkin.

The film is so free of contemporary cinematic clichés, so reassuring in its choice of familiar espionage gadgetry (remote control cameras, Geiger counters), that it tends to look extremely conservative, politically. Topaz, however, is really above such things. It uses politics the way Hitchcock uses actors — for its own ends, without making any real commitments to it. Topaz is not only most entertaining. It is, like so many Hitchcock films, a cautionary fable by one of the most moral cynics of our time.” –Vincent Canby (New York Times, December 20, 1969)

Even Variety published a review that wasn’t completely negative (though it did seem to fall somewhere between the two extremes).

Topaz tends to move more solidly and less infectiously than many of Alfred Hitchcock’s best remembered [pictures]. Yet Hitchcock brings in a full quota of twists and tingling moments…” -Variety (December 31, 1968)

This praise is probably rather surprising to contemporary audiences and critics. Today, opinion tends to lean almost universally in the opposite direction. In fact, there were critics that were less than enthusiastic about Topaz upon the film’s release. As a matter of fact, John Russell Taylor (Alfred Hitchcock’s official biographer) wrote a review was especially negative.

“Hitchcock, like all major film directors, has made his share of bad films. But never, I think, one which was so generally flat, undistinguished, and lacking in any sign of positive interest or involvement on his part.” -John Russell Taylor (The Times, November 6, 1969)

Richard Corliss wrote a review that was more of a diatribe against auteur theory than an essay about the merits and weaknesses of Topaz. The article had a number of digressions (which have been omitted here) that reveal a certain bias against Hitchcock and the popular opinion that he is an auteur. When he finally gets around to discussing Topaz, it isn’t surprising to discover that his words usually aren’t very kind.

“…Hitchcock will often settle for a mediocre script and indifferent actors simply to play with the emotions of an audience. At his best, Hitchcock is very good — not great…

…Hitchcock, as Sarris has said of Nicholas Ray, “is not the greatest director who ever lived; nor is he a Hollywood hack.” He is neither the Shakespeare of film, as Sarris and Robin Wood state, nor its Shad-well, as Pauline Kael might want us to believe. And Topaz is neither the quintessence of Hitchcockian cinema, nor an aimless, repetitive exercise. Its delights and disappointments are more worthy of analysis than of hagiographies or captious dismissals. Topaz does lack, say, the cohesion and sustained suspense — and, frankly, the performances — of last year’s NBA Championship series between that aging but proud, quite Hawksian group, The Boston Celtics, and the Los Angeles Lakers, an aggressive, fiercely talented quintet of individuals. But the movie has moments — minutes, sequences — that snap with a special excitement that comes from the perfect convergence of character, situation, acting, camera placement and cutting…

…The technical side of the film is occasionally so dreadful — with mismatched movements and lighting, clumsily speeded-up motion for no reason except to get a bit of exposition over with more quickly, poor dubbing, peripatetic matte shots, too-long dissolves, unnecessary crescendos in the score — that Robin Wood should have a more difficult time than usual defending these inept process shots as Hitchcock’s jaundiced comment on the Industrial Age’s planned obsolescence…

…Not only does Topaz have too much operatic small talk, and not only does the opening aria — the smuggling of a Russian defector out of Denmark — seem needlessly distended, but the lead singer is about as capable in his role as Mrs. Miller would be in La Traviata. Frederick Stafford, an actor of indeterminate nationality and few movie credits (he starred in Andre Hunebelle’s OSS 117 — Mission for a Killer, released here in 1966), has what purports to be the leading role, that of a French intelligence agent stationed in Washington, with a branch office in Cuba. Stafford is terrible. He’s posey, wooden, smug, pausing over a brandy snifter like an early-talkie actor reading his lines into a hidden mike. In fact, Stafford’s badness is so consistent, almost stylized, that he is suggestive not of the individual bad actors one encounters in most movies, but of whole genres of bad actors… A good actor makes you feel he’s been inhabiting a character for years, and each nuance evokes a lifetime of experiences, choices and emotions. Stafford, and Dany Robin as his frigid wife, convey to the viewer nothing but the nervousness they feel in characters they don’t understand…

…Though Topaz is a leading man’s nightmare, it’s also a character actor’s dream. John Vernon, a powerful young Canadian actor (Point Blank, Justine, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here), is outstanding as a manic Castro aide. His black beard and marble-blue eyes first attract our attention, but Vernon keeps himself there by adding, to the Raf Vallone — “I am ze bool” hysteria of the role as written, an unusual amalgam of lust and tenderness for his mistress (who is really Stafford’s beloved, and a devoted anti-Communist), the heroic, warm, womanly Karin Dor. The scenes between Vernon and Dor are so superior to those with Stafford and Robin that you wonder how Hitchcock could have directed one feuding couple with extraordinary passion and tactile vividness, while letting a similar scene go memorably flat. The difference probably has as much to do with that felicitous congeries of situation and inspiration, of action and passion, of actor and character, as it does with any directorial epiphanies. Whatever the cause, these sequences in Dor’s villa are complex, human, and beautiful. They lead from Stafford’s idyll with his real love (who manages to spark this mannequin to real life), through Vernon’s discovery that Dor has betrayed him and her government — and it is a measure of Vernon’s and Hitchcock’s achievement that we can share the Castroite’s outrage and nearly tragic, cuckolded disillusionment — to her murder, photographed from above, her velvety violet dress filling the screen as she falls to the floor in a moving metaphor for the grace that informed her way of life and gives her final moral supremacy in their personal and political battle to the death. Throughout this whole middle section of the film, stereotypes become human beings, and Topaz comes vibrantly alive.

The final third of the film, in which Stafford discovers two Russian spies working in the French government, lacks the power and passion of the preceding encounter. Vernon and Dor are physical actors; Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret, who play the spies, are more intellectual, Piccoli in his suave assurance, Noiret in his Lorrean paranoia. The “confrontation” is in fact so oblique that it never really takes place. There is a luncheon for six, of whom two are spies. Hitchcock works over our suspicions through the use of supercilious glances and portentous camera angles, but the villains (the two charmers, of course) aren’t revealed until later, and Stafford never gets to tell them off. The movie just runs out, like a tube of toothpaste.

Part of Hitchcock’s problem is Leon Uris’s unwieldy book, based on a true spy story that is more coherent than the novel and more shocking than the movie… Topaz, a 400-page novel cluttered with insignificant (presumably documentary) detail and dramatically irrelevant characters, offered a challenge not only of condensation but of elaboration; and here, Hitchcock and scenarist Samuel Taylor (Sabrina, The Monte Carlo Story, Vertigo, Three on a Couch) have performed admirably. Situations and characters have been first simplified and then enriched. The Soviet defector (Per-Axel Arosenius) is thus allowed to suggest that the difference between himself and his interrogators is that he is a severe, aristocratic Russian and they are open-faced middle-class Americans. Roscoe Lee Browne is given a few marvelous, largely wordless scenes that strip his character of Uris’s idiosyncrasies the better to let Browne create him anew with smiles and gestures. And Michel Piccoli is allowed to be himself: concerned, decadent, so graceful that he obliterates questions of morality…

…Beneath the mythical Hitchcock who is the author of everything grand in his oeuvre is a partly creative, mostly collaborate craftsman who must rely on the crucial contributions of his co-workers. Topaz, inept and ineffable, poorly acted and well-acted, shoddily shot and exquisitely shot, mediocre and transcendent, should be kept in mind before we send “Hitchcock” to the Pantheon or to critical perdition.” -Richard Corliss (Film Quarterly, Spring 1970)

Topaz is one of this reviewer’s least favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s American films, but it is a film that seems to improve with each viewing. There are sequences that are undeniably brilliant. It would be a mistake to disregard the film entirely. However, I maintain that it would have been preferable to have Kaleidoscope take this film’s place in Hitchcock’s filmography.

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.

Topaz's Masterpiece Collection Page

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.

 [Note: The extended 2 hour and 23 minute version of the film is featured here with the “airport ending.”]

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

 Universal’s VC-1 transfer exhibits excellent color resolution and impressive clarity. The sharp detail showcase the various textures accurately, and the grain structure remains consistent throughout the length of the film. Of course, the transfer does have a few flaws that keep it from being one of the better transfers in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. There is a fair amount of source noise at certain points throughout the picture, and there are a few instances when the color fluctuates. Luckily, the skin tones are almost always consistent and natural looking. As is usual with most of Universal’s color films, there is a fair amount of digital tampering performed on the image. There may be a few minor image halos at certain points in the film. Overall, the transfer is satisfactory.

 Screenshot 3

Sound Quality:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

 The two channel mono soundtrack is quite clean, and showcases clear dialogue without any distracting noise or anomalies to distract from one’s enjoyment. The film’s music and sound effects are also well rendered here. There is very little room for complaint here.

Screensho 4

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Topaz: An Appreciation – (SD) – (29 minutes)

Laurent Bouzereau again directs this “appreciation” of Topaz, but an objective “making of” documentary would have been preferable. While Leonard Maltin attempts to walk the viewer through a few of the film’s production problems, there isn’t enough information here to put it among Bouzereau’s other documentaries for Universal’s Hitchcock catalog (most of which are excellent). It is nice that an effort was made, even if it doesn’t completely satisfy.

It manages to be just useful enough to maintain our interest, but it is disappointing to not have a more comprehensive look at the film’s creation. Why do we not include any information about Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred Kaleidoscope project? Where are the interviews with the actors and crew? Were they not willing to participate? John Forsythe appeared in The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over. Why not question him about this film? These questions will have to go unanswered (just like our questions about Topaz).

Alternate Endings – (SD) – (6 minutes)

All three of the film’s endings are included here (“The Duel,” “The Suicide,” and “The Airport”) “The Duel” isn’t complete, and seems to be in poor condition. This is probably because it was never a part of any official release due to the negative comments at preview screenings. The other two endings were both released in various markets, and appear to be in fine condition. It is interesting to compare these three endings.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (3 minutes)

This theatrical trailer is an interesting artifact. It features Alfred Hitchcock, but lacks the level of wit that one sees in some of his other trailers. It is certainly good to see it included here.

Storyboards: The Mendozas (SD) – (12 minutes)

“The Mendozas” sequence storyboards are shown with video footage of the film so that fans can make comparisons. This should interest fans of storyboarding.

Production Photographs (SD) – (6 minutes)

This is a slideshow of movie posters, vintage ads, and production photos. It is nice to see that this carried over from the earlier DVD editions.

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

Topaz isn’t one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better American films, but it is has moments of brilliance. Since the film seems to improve substantially with each viewing, fans will probably want to add it to their collection. Luckily, Universal’s Blu-ray transfer is a decent upgrade to the previous DVD editions of the film.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Jamaica Inn – 75th Anniversary Edition

75th Anniversary Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Cohen Film Collection

 Release Date: May 12, 2015

 Region: Region A

Length: 1:39:39

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono LPCM (48 kHz / 2304 kbps / 24-bit)

 Subtitles: None

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.06 Mbps

Note: This release is also available in a DVD edition.

Maureen O'Hara had made two small film appearances before starring in the film, but this was the first film that she made using her famous stage name.

Maureen O’Hara had made two small film appearances before starring in the film, but this was the first film that she made using her famous stage name.

“…Since the contract with Selznick wasn’t due to start until April, 1939, I had time to make another British film, and that was Jamaica Inn… Laughton and Erich Pommer were associated on the production of that one. The novel, as you know, is by Daphne du Maurier, and the first script was written by Clemence Dane, who was a playwright of some note. Then Sidney Gilliat came in and we did the script together. Charles Laughton wanted his part built up, and so he brought in J.B. Priestley for additional dialogue…

Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake. If you examine the basic story, you will see that it’s a whodunit… All sorts of things happen in that tavern, which shelters scavengers and wreckers who not only seem to enjoy total immunity, but who are also kept thoroughly informed of the movements of ships in the area. Why? Because at the head of this gang of thugs is a highly respectable man – a justice of the peace, no less –who masterminds all of their operations.

It was completely absurd, because logically the judge should have entered the scene at the end of the picture. He should have carefully avoided the place and made sure he was never seen in the tavern. Therefore it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace. Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed. Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1967)

Hitchcock was a director that usually enjoyed a very comfortable level of creative freedom. He was considered Britain’s best film director, and was given a rare amount of control over his films. If Alfred Hitchcock’s lengthy monologue about Jamaica Inn seems overly negative, it is probably due to the unusual amount of control that Charles Laughton and Erich Pommer had over the production.

He elaborates about of Laughton’s interference later in the same interview.

 “When we started the picture [Laughton] asked me to show him only in close shots because he hadn’t figured out the manner of his walk. Ten days later he came in and said, ‘I’ve found it.’ It turned out that his step had been inspired by the beat of a little German waltz, and he whistled it for us as he waddled about the room. I can still remember how he did it… I don’t like to work that way.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1967)

Directing Jamaica Inn was probably good practice for the director, because his next film would be made for David O. Selznick. This film would be Rebecca, which was based on another novel by Daphne du Maurier. As a matter of fact, the author wasn’t particularly happy with Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn. She had to be convinced that Rebecca would be more faithful to her novel… but all of this seems to be a slight digression from the subject of this article.

The film certainly bears the mark of the master, but it isn’t a film that showcases his usual storytelling methods. Contemporary audiences might have the impression that Jamaica Inn was one of the director’s failures. This was not the case. As Hitchcock mentioned in his interview with François Truffaut, the film was quite a hit at the box office, and critical reception wasn’t particularly bad either.

Maurice Yacowar’s essay about Jamaica Inn (featured in Hitchcock’s British Films) claims that the film was poorly received, but when one looks at the actual reviews it becomes clear that the reception wasn’t particularly negative. There were certainly some negative reviews, but these were balanced by a large number of excellent reviews.

Variety was one of the first publications to sing the film’s praises.

“Superb direction, excellent casting, expressive playing and fine production offset an uneven screenplay to make Jamaica Inn a gripping version of the Daphne du Maurier novel. Since it’s frankly a blood-‘n’-thunder melodrama, the story makes no pretense at complete plausibility…

…Atmosphere of the seacoast and the moors is strikingly recreated and the action scenes have a headlong rush. Withal, there are frequent bits of brilliant camera treatment and injections of salty humor. It’s a typical Alfred Hitchcock direction job…” Variety (December 31, 1938)

The BFI Monthly Film Bulletin was equally enthusiastic, but disagreed with Variety’s claim that the film was “typical” of Hitchcock.

“…This lurid story of violence and brutality is lavishly staged. Its sinister atmosphere is set in the opening sequence of a wrecking. This is most effectively represented, and the lighting of the night scene is outstandingly good. There are few directorial touches which are characteristically Hitchcock, and on the whole he has sacrificed subtlety to spectacle. The crowd scenes are handled with his usual dexterity…

…The newcomer, Maureen O’Hara, is charming to look at and has a delightful voice and shows distinct promise as an actress.” – BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (May, 1939)

The Portsmouth Evening News went even further in their praise of the film.

“This picture has been made by Laughton’s independent film unit – in collaboration with Erich Pommer – which gave us that very disappointing The Vessel of Wrath: a film of face-pulling grimaces, and slow action. But this is vastly better, and I rank it among the best films I have seen so far this year.

Jamaica Inn is a melodrama, and first-class melodrama too…

…I should say at once that [Laughton] is excellent in this role. He captures the grand manner of the arrogant aristocrat magnificently, and now and again there comes into his eyes that trace of hereditary madness which finally sends him to his death… It is a fine performance…

…The film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who is so good at creating an atmosphere of suspense in his pictures (as in The Lady Vanishes). This is not a typical Hitchcock film, but the suspense is there time and time again… Be sure to see Jamaica Inn.” -Portsmouth Evening News (May 16, 1939)

The Aberdeen Journal praised both Laughton and Hitchcock in no uncertain terms.

“Two names commend at once this version of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the bad old Cornish wreckers — Charles Laughton and Alfred Hitchcock. Expectations are high and there is no disappointment. As the villainous squire who satisfies his taste for luxury by getting a band of ruffians to lure ships on to the Cornish rocks and then to plunder them, Mr. Laughton gives a characteristic performance. It is not, perhaps, original Laughton, but the actor straddles the scene and Mr. Hitchcock serves him particularly well in bringing out the ‘asides’ to detail which Mr. Laughton can do so well with the flicker of an eyelid or the wave of a wrist.

It is interesting to find Mr. Hitchcock directing a costume piece for a change. He produces terrific pace, which suits the bloodthirsty plot excellently, and he brings the best out of such fine supporting players as Marie Ney, Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams, Robert Newton and Maureen O’Hara.” -Aberdeen Journal (October 3, 1939)

Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin also enjoyed Jamaica Inn, and felt that it had immense commercial appeal.

“Jamaica Inn offers choice entertainment for a variety of filmgoers. Superbly acted and magnificently directed, this picturization of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel builds suspense and interest from the very first sequence to the taut, action-packed and unusual climax. It combines the best features of English mystery-drama with American action. It packs an entertainment wallop your reviewer has rarely felt during his past few weeks of Hollywood previewing. There are the mystery and horror angles to attract the action fans. More discriminating patrons will be interested in the acting treat set up by Charles Laughton. Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams and others in the hand-picked cast. Because it is an English production, no exhibitor should stamp it as a film of limited appeal. Jamaica Inn warrants every possible exploitation effort. It is first rate motion picture entertainment…

…Charles Laughton is virtually the whole show. Expertly he creates a fascinating madman whose insanity becomes more intense, more apparent as he comprehends his approaching doom. Leslie Banks is excellent as the crude tool in Laughton’s hands. Marie Ney impresses as his wife. Newcomer Maureen O’Hara is attractive and a capable young actress. Emlyn Williams etches another of his distinctive heavy characterizations. Supporting cast is uniformly good.

A past master at this sort of drama, Alfred Hitchcock’s direction attains its usual high standard.” -Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin (October 7, 1939)

Of course, there were a few critics that felt that the film wasn’t up to the usual Hitchcock standards. The Yorkshire Post published a particularly negative review.

“…That Mr. Hitchcock should be directing the picture gave promise of novel treatment. Yet Mr. Hitchcock’s technique, usually so refreshing even though he does not always take care to conceal the improbabilities in the story, never once came through in Jamaica Inn. Perhaps he was worried by the historical setting — his speciality is modern times — but oddly enough, there was none of that suspense which he can so expertly create. The film passed from shipwreck to smugglers’ inn, from squire’s mansion back, via smuggler’s inn, to the storm-lashed coast and a final night chase along the moonlit turnpike road.

Here, in fact, were all the right ingredients. Yet somehow one didn’t care a hoot what happened — and I think the reason, partly, was that not one of the characters was ever firmly planted as a real person: Mr. Laughton’s make-up was singularly grotesque, and I felt that behind it were not even the brains to direct one common smuggler, let alone a dozen.

It was understood that Sir Humphrey came of tainted stock, and that insanity would gradually present itself. And so it did — but not in that eerie, horrifying manner which lies well within Mr. Laughton’s range. Throughout he remained a merely ridiculous figure — even, his eventual suicide was rather absurd and provoked only titters.

Mr. Leslie Banks, as chief smuggler, blundered around and looked suitably dangerous; poor Miss Ney just suffered; Mr Robert Newton was a resourceful preventive officer, but in his dealings with Miss O’Hara spelt romance with a very small “r.” Miss O’Hara herself is sweet and pretty — but aren’t they all?

Most of the film has been shot in dim interiors — or else in shocking bad weather (with none of the grandeur of bad weather). This also contributed to the general gloom. I don’t think the sun shone once…” -F. A. R. (Yorkshire Post, May 10, 1939)

If scholars are under the impression that Jamaica Inn was poorly received, one reason might be a review that was published in The Times.

“Miss Daphne du Maurier’s story of wreckers on the Cornish coast, Jamaica Inn, which appears on the London screen this week, neither adds to nor greatly detracts from the reputations of Mr. Charles Laughton and Mr. Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Laughton’s playing is effective along familiar theatrical lines, and Mr. Hitchcock’s production is rather painstaking than inspired…

In the midst of a story which appears to have been made for schoolboys — the film is adapted from a novel by Miss Daphne du Maurier — there appears one curious and picturesque character, the character who is played by Mr. Charles Laughton… The wind blows nearly always, the nights seem to be very long and the scenes in daylight few, the waves are spectacular, and there is a great deal of fighting, riding, hiding, pursuit, and escape. In fact the director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, seems for the moment to have given up his method of slow and deliberate tension; it is a film of downright and in no way subtle action.

But the personage represented by Mr. Laughton is little more than conventionally picturesque; he is the squire who directs the wreckers, a fantastic and inordinate gentleman of the Regency period, megalomaniac, flighty, and uncontrollable. Even so it is apparently thought necessary to apologize for this curious figure by calling him, quite unnecessarily, a lunatic; Mr. Laughton makes him quite intelligible without going to such extremes and he gives a fascinating sketch of vanity run to seed and of the manners of a dandy changing in exile to hysterical flourishes. But it is surely a mistake to exaggerate the dandy’s accent until, as happens continually, he becomes inaudible in the theatre…” The Times (May 15, 1939)

Certain reviews seem to report both the positive and the negative elements in Jamaica Inn, and these moderate reviews are probably a fair representation of the film’s attributes. The review published in Harrison’s Reports is one such example.

“This British-made production will probably do good business, not because the picture itself merits it, but because of the popularity of Charles Laughton, the star, and of Alfred Hitchcock, the director; also because of the fame of the novel, which has been read widely. It is a lurid melodrama, centering around nefarious characters, who resort to the most villainous acts to gain their ends. The action is spotty: at times it is slow, but occasionally it becomes quite exciting, holding one in tense suspense. Laughton overacts a bit, but his performance is colorful and amusing; he dominates the picture. He is particularly good in the final scenes…” -Harrison’s Reports (September 30, 1939)

Frank S. Nugent was wise enough to sort out the reasons behind some of the more problematic elements of Jamaica Inn. He believed that the control that Laughton had over the production was detrimental to the final product. His review isn’t particularly positive, but it does find room for praise.

“Having set his own standards, Alfred Hitchcock must be judged by them; and, by them, his Jamaica Inn… is merely journeyman melodrama, good enough of its kind, but almost entirely devoid of those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor, the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize his best pictures. Without them, Hitchcock is still a good director, imaginative and cinema-wise, but with no more individuality than a dozen others in his field and subject, like them, to the risk of having a mere actor run away with the film.

That had never happened to Hitchcock before. His pictures always were his. But Jamaica Inn will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture. It bears the Laughton stamp as unmistakably as The Thirty-nine Steps bore Hitch’s. Perhaps that is the root of the evil, if it is an evil. For Hitch never faced a player his size before (and we’re not thinking only of gross tonnage). With two such stalwart individualists battling on a bare sound stage they might have come to a draw. But Laughton had more than weight on his side: he is co-owner of the producing firm, Mayflower Productions, and in the film he wears costume and a putty nose. No director can spot Mr. Laughton a putty nose and still hope to lead him by it.

With Laughton setting the pace then, which is jolly enough, though slower than Hitch would have ordered it, Jamaica Inn has become a pardonably free translation of Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic novel… Mr. Laughton’s relish of the squire—it was a clergyman in the novel, but no matter—is infectious. Conscious as we were that he was overplaying him unashamedly, there is that to Mr. Laughton’s ogling, lip-pursing, strutting, nostril-dilating style which makes the offense altogether endearing. We can’t recall when we’ve ever held a monster in such complete affection. But, of course, Mr. Laughton’s Laughton-ism has slowed things down. He is such a bulky man to get into motion. We had the impression, as the film rolled on, of Hitch rushing the action to his doorstep and then having to wait three or four minutes for Laughton to answer the bell. Actually, the wait must have told more on Hitch than it did on us.

There are other virtues. Maureen O’Hara, who is lovely, has played Mary Yellen well this side of ingénue hysteria, with charming naturalness and poise, with even a trace of self-control in her screams. Leslie Banks is capital as Joss Merlyn, the wrecker ringleader, with a fine crew of cutthroats around him—Emlyn Williams, Wylie Watson, Edwin Greenwood among them. Marie Ney as the girl’s aunt, Robert Newton as the undercover man, George Curzon as one of Sir Humphrey’s blanker friends are splendid in their degree. We enjoyed it all, Mr. Laughton most, but it doesn’t seem like Hitchcock.” – Frank S. Nugent (The New York Times, October 12, 1939)

The review that was published in Time magazine seems to have a similar viewpoint.

Jamaica Inn (Mayflower). Fans of director Alfred Hitchcock had a surprise in store for them when they got the wrappings off this Hitchcock picture. They found it was no Hitchcock but an authentic Laughton. Scarcely a shot in the whole picture revealed the famed British director’s old mastery of cunning camera, sly humour, [and] shrewd suspense. But Charles Laughton’s impersonation of a Nero-like Cornish squire who is the paranoiac brain behind a gang of land pirates was magnificent in the eye-rolling, head-cocking, lip-pursing, massively mincing Laughton style.

Jamaica Inn is the somewhat free rending of Daphne Du Maurier’s best-seller of the same name… People who like their melodrama raw and in big gulps get their fill. Those who would swap a third-rate Hitchcock any night for a first-rate Laughton get an even break…” -Time (October 30, 1939)

One wonders what Jamaica Inn might have been like if Alfred Hitchcock had more control over the project. It is impossible to know for sure, but one would assume that he would give the film a more subjective treatment. Contemporary critics tend to respond more negatively to the film, but it is important to understand that they are coming to the film with a much larger catalog of Hitchcock films in which to compare this early work. Hitchcock was already an established master of suspense in 1939, but he had yet to create most of his best films.

It is also important to remember that until now, only inferior prints and transfers of Jamaica Inn have been available. As a matter of fact, many of the American public domain DVD releases of the film are missing approximately 8 minutes of footage! One has to question whether or not these critics were watching decent prints.

This brings us around to this new restored version of Jamaica Inn. The Cohen Media Group partnered with the British Film Institute to undertake a full 4K digital restoration of Jamaica Inn that was based on the BFI’s original nitrate negatives. The resulting print premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (it played in the Cannes Classic section), and also screened at the New York Film Festival.

Charles Laughton was Alfred Hitchcock's biggest challenge during the production. How does one direct an actor when the actor is also the producer and has the final word?

Charles Laughton was Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest challenge during the production. How does one direct an actor when the actor is also the producer and has the final word?

The Presentation:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is protected by a clear Blu-ray case (similar to those used by Criterion) with film related graphics. Inside the case is a small booklet that features chapter stops and film credits. These pages are illustrated with photographs from the film.

menu1menu 2menu 4menu 5

The animated menus utilize footage from the film with music from the film’s credits.

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Picture Quality:

 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

 The Cohen Media Group and The British Film Institute deserve praise for their 4K digital restoration of Jamaica Inn. A lot of painstaking time and effort went into the restoration.

“…The original nitrate negatives were sourced from the BFI. These elements were then scanned at 4K resolution by RRsat utilizing the ArriScan to create a DPX file sequence. The film was suffering from shrinkage and warping and as such had to be scanned without pin registration…

…Once scanned, the 4K sequence required huge amounts of stabilization to combat the shrinkage. Image warping also needed to be electronically pinned as the images were effectively bouncing around the screen. The nature of these issues required multiple software fixes on a frame by frame basis before the dirt and scratch removal could begin. The density within the image also fluctuated creating a pulsing effect which again had to be mapped and removed digitally.

Once these pre-fix stages the technical team moved into traditional restoration utilizing multiple software packages including PFClean, AfterFX, MTI and Dark Energy to treat the dirt and scratches. Grain treatment was applied with a mind to keeping as close to the original [celluloid source].” –Park Circus (Jamaica Inn Restored, May 21, 2014)

Their efforts were certainly not in vain. This transfer is an absolute revelation. The ghastly DVD versions that so many public domain houses released can be promptly tossed into the garbage bins. In other words, this is much more than an upgrade in picture resolution.

The dual-layered disc allows for a high bitrate that showcases this new restoration to maximum effect. The image exhibits much better contrast than anyone might expect, and this adds clarity to an already detailed image. The nitrate source materials make for a very cinematic image with a slight layer of grain that reminds us that we are watching a movie that was shot on nitrate film without ever becoming distracting. Most should be happy that the team did not go crazy with DNR. Tears in the print, dirt, scratches, and other anomalies have been properly eradicated. There may be a few rare instances of such flaws, but they aren’t at all distracting and should go unnoticed by most viewers.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

The full version of the film is happily represented here in a suburb black and white transfer that is free of any Chroma. Alfred Hitchcock fans have reason to rejoice.

Maureen O'Hara as Mary

Maureen O’Hara as Mary

Sound Quality:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

 The audio also required a great deal of restoration.

“…Hiss, crackle and pops were removed while the ‘noise’ from the original tracks was dramatically improved. The audio was digitized and then treated in the software domain in a completely non-destructive process.” –Park Circus (Jamaica Inn Restored, May 21, 2014)

The film’s audio track has been greatly improved by these efforts. It is quite clean for a film that is 75 years old, and the mono transfer seems to represent their work quite well. One can now experience Jamaica Inn without a wall of distracting hiss that seemed to haunt so many transfers of the film. Pops and crackling noises have also been greatly reduced (if not entirely obliterated). The opening music by Eric Fenby isn’t nearly as dynamic as it might be on a more recent release, but it is certainly within the realm of what one can reasonably expect from a 75 year old film.

Maureen O'Hara & Robert Newton didn't exactly set the very flammable nitrate film ablaze as love interests.

Maureen O’Hara & Robert Newton didn’t exactly set the very flammable nitrate film ablaze as love interests. However, Hitchcock does manage to hold our interest.

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature-length Commentary Track by Jeremy Arnold

Jeremy Arnold is an author and film historian that has written over 500 programming articles and film reviews for the TCM website. He also has a few books about various classic films to his credit. His commentary track is surprisingly good. It is quite informative without ever becoming overly dry. It maintains the viewer’s interest throughout the entire length of the film. It is well worth the audiences time.

Shipwrecked In A Studio: The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn(1080P) -(13:06)

This featurette is essentially a video essay by Donald Spoto. Spoto is the author of two of the more controversial biographies about Alfred Hitchcock. The liner notes list this program as a “video essay.” Actually, it is more of a laundry list of trivia delivered in a scholarly tone of voice. It is nice to have here, but it is vastly inferior to the excellent commentary track. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t particularly focus on the actual making of the film very much.

However, it seems somewhat ungrateful to criticize this featurette. It is much more than one might expect. After all, the film is 75 years old.

2014 Re-release Trailer – (1080P) – (1:28)

The restoration trailer is also included here.

Maureen O'Hara establishes herself as a feisty heroine in her first starring role.

Maureen O’Hara establishes herself as a feisty heroine in her first starring role.

Final Words:

Jamaica Inn isn’t one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, but it is both diverting and essential viewing for fans of the director. Not only is it the final film made by Alfred Hitchcock before starting a career in Hollywood, but it is also the screen debut of Maureen O’Hara (or at least her first appearance that was credited to “Maureen O’Hara”). Those who have not yet seen this new 4K restoration print of the film will want to do so immediately.

Yeah, I think we can safely say that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film.

I think we can safely say that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film,  even if  Laughton’s control of the project kept it from having his usual subjective treatment.

Review by: Devon Powell