Blu-ray Review: Frenzy

"Frenzy" Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 3, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 1:55:45

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

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

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS (48 kHz / 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.91 Mbps

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

Title Screenshot

“If I can still put as much vitality into a movie as I’ve put into Frenzy, what’s the point of retiring? I used to be called the boy director, and I still am.” –Alfred Hitchcock (to Guy Flatley in an interview for The New York Times, June 18, 1972)

After a string of increasingly disappointing films (The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz), Alfred Hitchcock returned to London to make Frenzy. The result is a triumphant return to form. The film was loosely adapted from Arthur La Bern’s “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,” but Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Shaffer improved upon the source text. Luckily, the critics recognized the film’s merits and enthusiastically praised the film upon its release.

Variety’s review had only kind things to say about Frenzy, but one could hardly call their praise overwhelming.

“Armed with a superior script by Anthony Shaffer, an excellent cast, and a top technical crew, Alfred Hitchcock fashions a first-rate melodrama about an innocent man hunted by Scotland Yard for a series of sex-strangulation murders.

Working from Arthur La Bern’s novel, ‘Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,’ Shaffer develops a finely-structured screenplay. Jon Finch heads the cast as something of a loser who becomes trapped by circumstantial evidence in the sordid murders of several women… Hitchcock has used this basic dramatic situation before.” -Variety (December 31, 1971)

Roger Ebert gave Frenzy a perfect score, and an enthusiastic recommendation upon the film’s release.

““Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy is a return to old forms by the master of suspense, whose newer forms have pleased movie critics but not his public. This is the kind of thriller Hitchcock was making in the 1940s, filled with macabre details, incongruous humor, and the desperation of a man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

The only 1970s details are the violence and the nudity (both approached with a certain grisly abandon that has us imagining Psycho without the shower curtain). It’s almost as if Hitchcock, at seventy-three, was consciously attempting to do once again what he did better than anyone else. His films since Psycho (1960) struck out into unfamiliar territory and even got him involved in the Cold War (Torn Curtain) and the fringes of fantasy (The Birds). Here he’s back at his old stand…

…Hitchcock sets his action in the crowded back alleys of Covent Garden, where fruit and vegetable vendors rub shoulders with prostitutes, third-rate gangsters, bookies, and barmaids. A lot of the action takes place in a pub, and somehow Hitchcock gets more feeling for the location into his films than he usually does. With a lot of Hitchcock, you have the impression every frame has been meticulously prepared. This time, the smell and tide of humanity slops over. (There is even one tide in the movie which does a little slopping over humanity itself, but never mind.)

It’s delicious to watch Hitchcock using the camera. Not a shot is wasted, and there is one elaborate sequence in which the killer goes upstairs with his victim. The camera precedes them up the stairs, watches them go in a door, and then backs down the stairs, alone, and across the street to look at the outside of the house. This shot is not for a moment a gimmick; the melancholy of the withdrawing camera movement is one of the most touching effects in the film, despite the fact that no people inhabit it.

There’s a lot of humor, too, including two hilarious gourmet meals served to the Chief Inspector (Alec McCowen) by his wife (Vivien Merchant). There is suspense, and local color (‘It’s been too long since the Christie murders; a good colorful crime spree is good for tourism’) and, always, Hitchcock smacking his lips and rubbing his hands and delighting in his naughtiness.” -Roger Ebert (Chicago-Sun Times, January 01, 1972)

Jay Cocks & Gerald Clarke’s review of film for Time magazine was more reserved in its praise, but admitted that the film was “proof” that Alfred Hitchcock was still in “fine form.”

“In case there was any doubt, back in the dim days of Marnie and Topaz, Hitchcock is still in fine form. Frenzy is the dazzling proof. It is not at the level of his greatest work, but it is smooth and shrewd and dexterous, a reminder that anyone who makes a suspense film is still an apprentice to this old master.

Frenzy is the first film that Hitchcock has shot in England for more than 20 years. Like a prodigal at home again, he lets his camera roam lovingly across London—Tower Bridge to Covent Garden, Hyde Park to Scotland Yard…

… The film has some shaky motivation and more than a fair share of trickery, but Hitchcock is such a superb storyteller that few viewers will even notice till well after the final fadeout. What they will notice is the perversity of the film. In one mind-boggling sequence, [the murderer] tries to pry his diamond pin from the stiff fingers of the corpse that he has stashed inside a potato sack.

… There are also Hitchcock’s usual moments of high comedy, here involving Inspector Oxford and his wife, who is taking a course in gourmet cookery and assaults her husband’s stubbornly English palate with a selection of highly sauced dishes. It is an old joke that would have worn pretty thin but for the performances of Alec McCowen and Vivien Merchant, the most elegant comic acting seen in movies in a long while…” -Jay Cocks & Gerald Clarke (Time, June 19, 1972)

Vincent Canby’s June 22, 1972 review for the New York Times also praised Frenzy, but some readers may have raised an eyebrow when the critic listed Topaz as one of the director’s better post-Psycho films.

“Alfred Hitchcock will be 73 on August 13, but like Luis Bunuel, whom he otherwise resembles but slightly, his talent is only enriched by the advancing years that make most directors fearful and insecure. In the last 12 years he has given us, among other things, The Birds, Topaz (really a one-film anthology of Hitchcock work) and now Frenzy, which is his 55th film as a director since 1922.

Frenzy is Hitchcock in the dazzling, lucid form that is as much the meaning as the method of his films. For Hitchcock, the mastery of style and the perfection of technique are the expressions of a passion that might prompt other men to seek cancer cures, or to construct completely non-utilitarian towers out of pieces of broken glass and bottle tops.

Frenzy, which opened yesterday at the Palace, Murray Hill and other theaters, is a passionately entertaining film set in a London that, except for the color photography, seems not too different from the setting of his earliest pictures, including The Lodger.

Like that 1926 film about a Jack the Ripper, Frenzy has to do with a sex-crazed, homicidal maniac who, in this case, does away with his victims (all women) with a necktie around the throat…

…Hitchcock does it with a marvelously funny script by Anthony Shaffer, with a superb English cast that is largely unknown here, and with his gift for implicating the audience in the most outrageous acts, which, as often as not, have us identifying with the killer. In one agonizing sequence, we are put into the position of cheering on (well, almost) the maniac, who has only a few minutes in which to retrieve an identifiable tie-pin from the clenched fingers of his most recent victim.

Were Hitchcock less evident throughout the film, Frenzy would be as unbearable as it probably sounds when I report that the killer has to break the fingers of the corpse. Yet it is something more than just bearable because never for a minute does one feel the absence of the storyteller, raising his eyebrows in mock woe. That pressure is apparent in a spectacular, seemingly unbroken camera movement that takes us, with the camera, down the stairs of the killer’s apartment, out the front door, to a position across the street.

It is apparent in the way Hitchcock plays fast but not necessarily loose with film time, that is, in the way he indulges himself in exploring the details of a single murder, yet manages to cover the hero’s long court trial in approximately 90 seconds.

It is also there in the exposition delivered in counterpoint to a hilariously inedible, gourmet dinner, served up to the chief inspector (Alec McCowen) by his prescient wife (Vivien Merchant). She disputes the facts he has had to feed us, while cheerily feeding him pig’s feet he can’t eat. ‘Women’s intuition,’ she says cheerfully, ‘is worth more than laboratories. I don’t know why you don’t teach it in police colleges.’

For Frenzy, Hitchcock has assembled one of his best casts, including Finch, Barry Foster, Miss Merchant, McCowen, and particularly, Anna Massey (Raymond Massey’s daughter), who plays a remarkably sexy London barmaid without being especially beautiful.

‘We haven’t had a good sex murderer since Christie,’ says someone in the film of the necktie killer, and Frenzy is the first good movie about a sex murderer since Psycho.” -Vincent Canby (New York Times, June 22, 1972)

Canby reviewed the film again on July 2, 1972. It is difficult to understand why Canby felt that he needed to discuss the perceived lack of substance in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, but this seems to be the focus of this second review. It is interesting to note that Canby’s response to Frenzy is just as enthusiastic here as it was in his previous review.

“Alfred Hitchcock is enough to make one despair. After 50 years of directing films, he’s still not perfect. He refuses to be serious, at least in any easily recognizable way that might win him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award or the Irving Thalberg Award, or even an Oscar for directorial excellence. Take, for example, his new film, Frenzy…What does it tell us about the human condition, love, the third world, God, structural politics, environmental violence, justice, conscience, aspects of underdevelopment, discrimination, radical stupor, religious ecstasy, or conservative commitment? Practically nothing…

…Only in the broadest terms can Frenzy be described as being ‘about’ something. Like almost every Hitchcock film it’s about Hitchcock’s gloomy view of a large majority of mankind, and about his conviction that he can transform almost any story, no matter how trite, into an experience that has no exact emotional equivalent in any other form. In the kind of responses their films elicit, Bergman, Buñuel, Keaton, Chaplin, Truffaut and any number of other great directors belong as much to a literary as a film tradition. Hitchcock–more than any other director, perhaps–belongs to films and because he does, he tends to be either patronized (film, after all, is a lesser breed of art) or over-analyzed, with the result that his extraordinary technical skill, his mastery of purely visual communication, and his wit are asked to define more than he ever intended.

Frenzy, which is the best acted Hitchcock film since North by Northwest, spends a great deal of time in the company of its necktie murderer, a genial London fruit wholesaler, but it can’t be bothered as much with the whys (except for the fact that he seems devoted to his toothy mum), as with the hows: first he rapes then strangles. It is one of the oddities of the film that although Hitchcock treats us to one murder almost as brutal as the shower killing in Psycho, it isn’t particularly brutalizing, principally, I think, because the presence of Hitchcock, the tall story teller, is never missed for a moment. There he is, just off camera, wearing a woeful expression that seems to ask us what this naughty fellow is likely to do next.

Strangulations, rapes, close shaves, pursuit, the arrest of an innocent, amusing character bits–none of these things is especially meaningful except in Hitchcock, for whom method is meaning, and whose perfection of method involves an evident passion. Other directors make movies about passion. Hitchcock makes his with passion, which is why watching Frenzy is like riding a roller coaster in total darkness. You can never be quite sure when you’re going to start a terrifying new descent or take a sudden turn to the left or right. The agony is exquisite.” -Vincent Canby (New York Times, July 2, 1972)

John Russell Taylor’s review for The Times was also flattering.

“The very first scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s new film immediately makes one feel at home. This is Hitchcock, and this is Hitchcock’s London, where people say things like ” ‘’Ere, that there necktie killer isn’t half leading the police a dance’ while they watch a body being dragged from the Thames as an untimely illustration to a ministerial discourse on the happy freedom of our river from pollution. It is not, you may gather, quite the London we live in today, but where is the harm in that? After all, the world of Sabotage and The Man Who Knew Too Much was a far nicer, more settled background to nasty happenings, and the lightning alteration of mild and bitter has always been one of Hitchcock’s trump cards.

He has rarely done anything nastier on the screen than the first murder which breaks into the idyllic London summer. (So nasty indeed, that apparently our censors have excised a few details.) Until we got to that point, Anthony Shaffer’s script had been making heavy weather of some rather simple exposition, setting up the prime suspect ‘necktie killer’ and the real culprit, his best friend. But once on to the slow strangulation, the dilated eyes, the hand clutching in rain for the telephone, Hitchcock is home and dry. The sequence is a model, shot silent and indeed very much like a silent film (nudity apart, it could come out of Blackmail, and it really gets the film going with a bang.

Particularly since it is immediately followed by a classic piece of Hitchcock effrontery when he holds the camera still on the entrance to the building where the murder has taken place as the suspect leaves, the victim’s secretary arrives, and then — long, long pause, just to see how long the audience can be held breathless waiting for that inevitable scream to rend the air. These are perhaps obvious Hitchcock tricks; but if they are so obvious, why has no one else ever managed to do them so well? And not for want of trying, either.

But the best of the film is still to come; it is possible to guess what exactly about the subject tempted Hitchcock to it. First, surely, the marvelous sequence, obligatory for any Hitchcock anthology, in which the murderer, having put his latest victim in a sack of potatoes on a lorry in Covent Garden, realizes that she has about her the vital clue, an initial pin, and has to recover it while the lorry rumbles and sways along the Great North Road. The toes peeping delicately out from among the potatoes, the frantic scrabbles about the naked corpse, the ultimate crunching break of rigid fingers, one by one, and the splendid throwaway coda, with corpse and vegetables tumbled out casually under the wheels of a following police car, are the sort of things only a master can get away with, making us laugh and cringe at the same time.

Second of the temptations, presumably, for Hitchcock the gourmet, were the scenes between the inspector in charge of the case (Alec McCowen) and his wife (Vivien Merchant) as she tries out her lessons in gourmet cookery on her unfortunate husband, who would rather have sausages and mash, and is instead confronted with dead, fishy eyes and bread-sticks that crunch just like dead fingers as they break… Here Shaffer’s script is at its best; elsewhere it achieves a serious period quality which would be worrying if it did not fit in with the tone of the film as a whole — it somehow seems right that these characters, even if they pretend to live in the 1970s, should talk like regulars of Patrick Hamilton’s Midnight Bell.

I have not mentioned, though, one of the most astonishing moments in the film — indeed, in any Hitchcock film — and that, like the murder and the potato-sack sequence, achieved with no dialogue at all. Everything is set up for the murder of an innocent, good-hearted barmaid (Anna Massey). We see her fall into the trap of the murderer’s kindness, and go home with him. We are probably expecting another virtuoso killing. But instead the camera moves back from the entrance hall they have just left – and dollies very, very slowly away across the road, and across the market. As it does so the sounds of London, so far suppressed, come floating back, until finally sounds and picture fade. The effect is beautiful, poetic (yes, Hitchcock can be a poet when he wishes) and terrifying. A great director again making a film worthy of his great talents; the magic remains intact.” -John Russell Taylor (The Times, May 23, 1972)

Unfortunately, Taylor’s praise of the film inspired Arthur La Bern (author of the film’s source novel) to write a letter to the editor denouncing the film.

“Sir, I wish I could share John Russell Taylor’s enthusiasm for Hitchcock’s distasteful film, Frenzy (review, May 24). I endured 116 minutes of it at a press showing and it was, at least to me, a most painful experience.

I do speak with some authority on this subject. It so happens that I am the author of the novel, ‘Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,’ on which the film was based.

Mr. Hitchcock employed Mr. Shaffer to adapt my book for the screen, apparently because of the latter’s successful stage play, Sleuth.

The result on the screen is appalling. The dialogue is a curious amalgam of an old Aldwych farce, Dixon of Dock Green and that almost forgotten No Hiding Place. I would like to ask Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Shaffer what happened between book and script to the authentic London characters I created.

Finally: I wish to dissociate myself with Mr. Shaffer’s grotesque misrepresentation of Scotland Yard offices.” -Arthur La Bern (Letter to the Editor, The Times, May 29, 1972)

Having read “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,” it is necessary to point out that his so-called “authentic London characters” were rather sloppily written cardboard cutouts. The characters in the film version are more developed than those in his book. One could actually ask Mr. La Bern what happened “to the authentic London characters [he] created” since they didn’t find their way to the pages of his novel.

William Johnson strongly disagreed with Arthur La Bern’s opinions about Frenzy, and his review Film Comment often took the opportunity to criticize the novel while praising Hitchcock’s film adaptation.

“Right from the start Frenzy communicates a sense of enjoyment, as if Hitchcock knew he was back on form again. To the sound of rousing Elgarian music, the camera glides down over the Thames as Tower Bridge opens to let it through. The prodigal son is returning, it seems, to pay homage to his native city. But the pomp and circumstance do not last long. As a speaker on the embankment outside the London Council offices declares that the Thames is now free of pollution, a girl’s corpse, naked except for a tie knotted firmly around her neck, comes floating along. ‘Another necktie murder!’ says a voice in the crowd, and the action is under way.

The film blends two of Hitchcock’s favorite and most successful themes. An innocent man, Dick Blaney (Jon Finch), is suspected of being a sex-killer when his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) become victims. He is blood-brother to the many threatened innocents in Hitchcock’s films, from Robert Donat in The 39 Steps to Cary Grant in North by Northwest. At the same time the real killer passes for a genial extrovert of the same breed as Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train.

These themes are no doubt what attracted Hitchcock to Arthur La Bern’s sour and sloppily-written book, which he and Anthony Shaffer have transformed into a taut, sure-footed film that moves compellingly from start to finish…

…Hitchcock’s collaborators seem to have shared his confidence and enthusiasm. There is an especially fine chemistry at work among Hitchcock, Shaffer, and the cast. Shaffer, author of the play (and screenplay) Sleuth, has an ear for rapid and witty dialogue that gives a lively edge to Hitchcock’s deliberate, let’s-make-quite-sure-the-audience-gets-it approach. Even more important, Shaffer injects life into the nondescript characters of the book, and the actors respond eagerly to their roles. Babs, for example, a fluffy bundle of working-class clichés in the book, becomes a girl of delightful spirit, and Anna Massey makes the most of her first good screen role since a very different study of a London sex-killer, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Hitchcock, in turn, gains dividends from her liveliness even after Babs dies, since it gives greater emotional impact to Rusk’s maltreatment of her body.

All the same, since Hitchcock takes prime responsibility for his films from their inception to final cut, it’s fair to see Frenzy as essentially his achievement – just as it was fair to see Torn Curtain and Topaz as his failures. Through his choice of collaborators, and through his influence on them, he obtains a broad family resemblance from film to film. Shatter’s dialogue echoes, even as it surpasses, John Michael Hayes’ work for Hitchcock in the mid-Fifties or the Frank Launder-Sidney Gilliatt script for The Lady Vanishes. Ron Goodwin’s music continues the Bernard Herrmann tradition of the Fifties and early Sixties, with a pulsing theme for strings that recalls the opening of Psycho and a poignant, sustained theme in 3⁄4 time similar to the romantic orchestral tides of Vertigo and Marnie – or, for that matter, to Richard Addinsell’s score for Under Capricorn. Cinematographer Gil Taylor has worked mainly in black-and-white, and the only other color films of his I have seen with London settings, Desmond Davis’ A Nice Girl Like Me, was keyed to rich, romantic effects quite unlike the clear warm pastels which predominate in Frenzy – as they do in most of the Hitchcock films photographed by Robert Burks. At the same time, the film undoubtedly benefits from Taylor’s long and varied experience of filming in London, from Seven Days to Noon through A Hard Days Night and Repulsion.

With Frenzy, Hitchcock seems to have been stimulated as never before by a return to his native city. The street-location scenes are deft and casual, with none of the self-conscious ‘local color’ found in, say, Blow Up or Sunday Bloody Sunday. Both in mood and in technique-especially the matching of colors and settings-they blend impeccably with the studio scenes. As a result, although the film quickly narrows its focus from the London panorama of the opening to the actions of a handful of characters, the sense of place persists…

…With Frenzy, the Covent Garden market background – only incidental in the book – sustains the tone of the whole film. Immediately after the corpse-in-Thames prelude, Blaney is seen losing his job in one Covent Garden pub and walking through the market to spend his last money on drinks in another. The settings – a market where farm produce is continually coming in and going out, pubs where people are continually coming in and going out – pick up the theme of shiftlessness and uncertainty and carry it like an ostinato throughout the film.

Some critics react to this kind of deeper appraisal of Hitchcock rather like a WCTU member faced with a glass of beer – as if it leads straight to delirium. In their view, taking Hitchcock seriously as a filmmaker means getting hopelessly high on allusions and profundities which don’t exist. Ironically, one of the allusions that can easily be read into Frenzy is a satire on those who read too much into it. When the Scotland Yard inspector’s wife proudly uncovers her ludicrous soupe de poissons instead of the plain fare her husband wants, she might be standing in for Hitchcock’s more fanciful interpreters. But the barb also cuts the other way. The inspector, who could go on wallowing forever in fried egg and sausage, is clearly too unadventurous in his tastes.

The skeptics’ case for rejecting anything but egg and sausage in Hitchcock can be summed up like this: The kind of subtlety and artistry that is often attributed to him is difficult for any filmmaker to achieve; it is certainly beyond the reach of one who deals in melodramatic plots and effects. The best way to answer this case and define my own particular claims for Hitchcock is to go straight to specifics. As Exhibit A for the defense, here is a scene from Frenzy which anyone who has seen the film should remember:

When [the murderer] takes Babs to his apartment, the camera picks them up inside the street entrance, moves ahead as they climb the stairs, and then pauses, panning with them until they arrive at Rusk’s door. ‘I don’t know whether I’ve ever told you, Babs,’ [he] says, ‘but you’re my type of woman’ – the same line he said to Brenda before attacking her. After the door closes behind them, the camera – still in the same continuous shot – backs slowly down the stairs, out of the front door and across the busy street, where it holds on Rusk’s curtained windows…

…It strengthens the bond between the drama (the first, interior part of the scene) and the setting (the exterior part).

It prepares the ground emotionally for the scene where Blaney comes to hide out at [the murderer’s] place, not knowing he’s the killer. The imprint of Babs’ going to her death adds an emotional overtone to the audience’s concern for Blaney.

The movement away from Babs, and the progression from silence to the bustle of the street, crystallize a sense of human aloneness…

…To the skeptics, he may seem only a jaded old pro. Because his films revolve around sex and murder, the morbid and the grotesque, nearly always provoking visceral responses in his viewers, it’s easy to judge Hitchcock himself in the light of these apparently Romantic traits; and an intense romantic should not enjoy a tongue-in-cheek public persona or lend his name to TV and paperback potboilers.

But Hitchcock is no romantic. Despite the sensational content of his films, he stands much closer to the classical tradition. Even when he puts personal experience into his films – his fear of policemen, or the detritus of his Jesuit schooling – he handles them with as much detachment as the cleaning up of the Thames or the state of the potato market. What distinguishes Hitchcock from most other commercial directors is his concern with shaping each film, above all else, into a satisfying object with an over-all balance and harmony of its own. He does not look for any easy way of doing this – via fantasy or abstraction – but accepts the challenge of wrestling with at least the semblance of real life.

In Frenzy the semblance is stronger than in most of his films – and so is the challenge. Here he has to assimilate more than settings into the shape of his drama. The characters, too, have a surface grittiness which could tear the fabric of a merely ‘well-made’ plot. It’s a long time since Hitchcock has featured a straight romantic hero, but none has been so morose and self-centered as Blaney. Most of the characters, in fact, reveal a similar chilly egoism, and the only two generous ones-Babs and Brenda – are disposed of very nastily indeed. Yet Hitchcock still succeeds in making his film into a satisfying and enjoyable object.

A craftsman who can bring off this kind of challenge is working at a high level of vigor and intensity. It is no longer far-fetched to suggest that Frenzy – which has a classical tightness of form, grips its audience, and revolves around characters [that] are indifferent to one another – can also crystallize the precariousness of the human condition.

This does not mean that Hitchcock is a conscious moralist. In his film making, he is as detached from messages as he is from his own past – and he remains unspoiled by critical adulation that might have lured another filmmaker into self-consciousness. In his own way, he has a ‘poet’s eye [which] Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven’; but it is the viewer’s eye which ends up ‘in a fine frenzy rolling.’ -William Johnson (Film Comment, December 16, 1972)

Albert Johnson can also be added to the list of pleased critics, and his review for Film Quarterly praised everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s direction to Ron Goodwin’s score.

“In the past decade, the most serious charge against the work of Alfred Hitchcock has been that of dullness, that absence of suspense in the simplest cinematic translation, that lack of surprise and malevolent wit that characterized the unforgettable twists of terror in Psycho

Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock’s latest film, is indeed triumphant in almost every way, and it is a cause for jubilation among those who admire suspense-thrillers. It is filmed in the London of today, but without the ‘trendy’ atmosphere of the Beatles-Twiggy mob. It is, rather nostalgically, the enduring, everyday London of Covent Garden, Tottenham Court Road and the Embankment — sunny London, really, where commonplaces of traffic, banalities and dignities of language and behavior can camouflage the activities of a savage rapist-strangler who compulsively snuffs out the lives of women by day or night. Armed only with a necktie, the murderer terrorizes the city, with nonchalant, incurable dementia.

What delights and chills the spectator is the splendid casting. Although Jon Finch’s introduction to American audiences was not entirely disappointing, his rather stilted Macbeth in the Polanski film does not prepare us for the ambiguous portrait of a maladjusted ex-RAF flyer named Richard Blaney. In this role, Finch is quite convincing as he trudges through what seems to be a thoroughly dead-end route to thwarted hopes and ultimate penury. …Once the suspense is established — the knowledge of Blaney’s penchant for uncontrolled violence — scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer and Hitchcock never release the tensions until the final sequence…

…Hitchcock’s underlying indictment against society in Frenzy is, it seems, the general tendency of people not to want to be involved in troubles of any kind. The camera reflects this dispassionate attitude in two notable moments: after the first murder, the camera remains on the street below. The victim’s body is discovered off-screen and we hear a scream. Two young girls, engrossed in conversation, stop for a second, then move on. The camera later follows the murderer and a prospective victim up the stairs of an apartment building and they enter a flat, the door closes, and in almost stealthy silence, the camera moves slowly down the stairs again and out into the loud noise and bustle of traffic. It is brilliantly discreet and chilling as well. The major character of non-involvement is exemplified by the cameo portrait of a hostile wife, Hetty Porter (Billie Whitelaw). Her husband tries to help Blaney hide from the police, out of their friendship during wartime, but Hetty’s unshakable mistrust is -persuasively presented, finally conquering her husband’s divided loyalties.

In fact, all of the characters seem real. Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s depiction of Blaney’s divorced wife is totally sympathetic and yet indicative of a certain willfulness and ambition that would alienate a man of Blaney’s disorganized temperament. Her beauty is in the glossy tradition of the Hitchcock blonde, but rather softened here to fit the middle-class milieu and one’s identification with the story. On the other hand, Anna Massey, as “Babs” Milligan, a barmaid who is in love with Blaney, is a superb, original creation, almost Dickensian in effect. She is completely without pretensions, sensible and although tough, just a bit guileless. Miss Massey succeeds in being the season’s most unlikely and lovable heroine, with a perky-bird earthiness all her own.

It would not be possible for Alfred Hitchcock to restrain his sense of humor, and in Frenzy, most of it is given to Alec McCowen as Inspector Oxford, who, in the course of investigation of the necktie murders, is encumbered in his home life by a wife who experiments with French cuisine. The sequences in which Mrs. Oxford (Vivien Merchant) serves outrageous dishes to her husband are not only filled with plot information (sometimes redundant), but most intriguingly, packed with some of the best facial expressions, subtle delivery of lines and superb comic timing to be found in Hitchcock since Radford and Wayne in The Lady Vanishes.

Hitchcock’s big scene in Frenzy involves the murderer’s frenetic effort to regain a damning piece of evidence from the fist of a corpse. Unfortunately, the corpse has been placed upside down in a sack of potatoes, and any effort to describe this sequence further is a futile gesture, for it is Hitchcock’s brilliance, his innate genius for this sort of suspense that will keep these moments alive forever. It is at the beginning of this sequence; however, that one’s attention is drawn to Ron Goodwin’s excellent score. The mordant melody takes on a slow waltz tempo as the murderer moves from the street to the flat — weaving with beautiful, sinuous calm before the moment of terrified remembrance… The theme has been heard earlier, dramatizing Blaney and his plight, but the sudden shift in musical mood at this point gives the film a depth of emotion that is an understated, sonorous enrichment of the audience’s responses to the murderer’s personality.

Frenzy, then, is Hitchcock’s return to the realm he commanded so long: the fears and excitement felt when viewing and hearing the stories of a diabolical narrator. Shaffer should work with Hitchcock again, and it is a pity that they are not collaborating on the film version of Sleuth. Two final delights in the film were recognizing a similarity to the ending of Dial M for Murder (the play, not the film) used here, with its uncomplicated, terse finale, and in the middle of the film, suddenly seeing Elsie Randolph as a wary hotel employee, casting a baleful eye at the hero, as if she were about to sing from one of her old musicals — ‘You’ve Got the Wrong Rhumba.'” –Albert Johnson (Film Quarterly, Autumn 1972)

François Truffaut’s review of the film was also flattering.

“In contemporary London, a sex maniac strangles women with a necktie. Fifteen minutes after the film begins, Hitchcock reveals the assassin’s identity (we had met him in the second scene). Another man, the focus of the story, is accused of the murders. He will be watched, pursued, arrested, and condemned. We will watch him for an hour and a half as he struggles to survive, like a fly caught in a spider’s web.

Frenzy is a combination of two kinds of movies: those where Hitchcock invites us to follow the assassin’s course: Shadow of a Doubt, Stage Fright, Dial M for Murder, Psycho … and those in which he describes the torments of an innocent person who is being persecuted: The Thirty-nine Steps, I Confess, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest. Frenzy is a kind of nightmare in which everyone recognizes himself: the murderer, the innocent man, the victims, the witnesses; a world in which every conversation, whether in a shop or a cafe, bears on the murders — a world made up of coincidences so rigorously ordered that they crisscross horizontally and vertically. Frenzy is like the design of crossword puzzle squares imposed on the theme of murder.

Hitchcock, who is six months older than Luis Bunuel (both are seventy-two), began his career in London, where he was born and where he made the first half of his films. In the forties he became an American citizen and a Hollywood filmmaker. For a long time, critical opinion has been divided between those who admire his American films — Rebecca, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Birds — and those who prefer his English films: The Thirty-nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Jamaica Inn.

Hitchcock’s fifty-second film, Frenzy, was a triumph at the Cannes Festival and reconciled both schools of critics, who acclaimed it unanimously, perhaps because it is the first film he’s made in Great Britain in twenty years. Hitchcock often says, ‘Some directors film slices of life, but I film slices of cake.’ Frenzy indeed looks like a cake, a ‘homemade’ cake by the septuagenarian gastronome who is still the ‘boy director’ of his London beginnings.

Everybody praised the performances of Jon Finch as the innocent man and of Barry Foster… I’d rather emphasize the high quality of the female acting. In Frenzy, for the first time Hitchcock turned away from glamorous and sophisticated heroines (of whom Grace Kelly remains the best example) toward everyday women. They are well chosen: Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Anna Massey, Vivien Merchant, and Billie Whitelaw, and they bring a new realism to Hitchcock’s work. The formidable ovation given Frenzy at the Cannes Festival redeems the contempt that greeted the presentations there of Notorious (1946), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1957) and The Birds (1963). Hitchcock’s triumph is one of style in recitative; here it has found its definitive form in a dizzying and poignant narration that never comes to rest, a breathless recitation in which the images follow one another as imperiously and harmoniously as the swift notes of the imperturbable musical score.

Hitchcock has long been judged by the flowers he places in the vase. Now we have at least realized that the flowers are always the same, and that his efforts are directed at the shape of the vase and its beauty. We come out of Frenzy saying to ourselves, ‘I can’t wait for Hitchcock’s fifty-third movie.’” -François Truffaut (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1973)

Unfortunately, praise for the film wasn’t quite unanimous. The National Organization of Women bestowed a ‘Keep Her in Her Place’ award upon Frenzy, and the subject matter led to controversy over the film’s brutal depiction of rape. Of course, the film’s dark humor only seemed to add fuel to the fire. One could make a strong argument that the women presented in the film were strong and intelligent women. They certainly weren’t submissive stereotypes. There are men in the world (like the murderer in Frenzy) who are threatened by this type of woman. They feel castrated by their success. Blaney might also fit into this category of men. Alfred Hitchcock has always been especially good at holding a mirror to the audience that seems to reflect the perverse aspects of human nature. Indeed, a horrible violence has been done to these women, and instead of seriously responding to these events minor characters are seen making off-color jokes about them. A barmaid is even seen laughing at such a joke. One can understand why the film raised a few eyebrows. However, this seems to be an accurate representation of human nature. People get a thrill out of gossiping, and joking about tragic events. Alfred Hitchcock even made a vague comment about this in an interview upon the film’s release.

“When some people present murder it seems to have a heavy cloud over it. …It seems to be a habit to handle it rather heavily. I don’t believe this really happens. In real life everyone seems to discuss it fairly cheerfully. It doesn’t make them metaphorically wear black. The first person to be forgotten is always the victim.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Times, January 11, 1971)

Whatever one’s opinion about this particular controversy, it must be said that the film is less misogynistic than the original novel. Hitchcock spares the viewer a number of especially troubling details. One example is the murderer’s twisted defilement of a certain corpse. In the novel, Babs suffers the post mortem indignity of having a potato shoved into a certain orifice. The film’s female characters are also more intelligent than the ones in the La Bern novel.

Perhaps the controversy cast a shadow on our current perception of Frenzy. Modern critics tend to overlook the film, or consider it with a certain amount of apathy. It is unfortunate that it doesn’t receive the respect that it deserves. It is probably the strongest film that the director made after Psycho was released in 1960. The performances are top-notch; it is a technical marvel, and a thrilling experience. The dark subject matter, and unlikable protagonist may turn certain viewers against the film, but others are sure to find these elements interesting.

Screenshot 2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (as seen at the top of this article).

Menu 1

Menu 2

Menu 3

Menu 4

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

Screenshot 3

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer isn’t their best transfer of a Hitchcock film, but it is far from their worst. The main issue with the transfer is occasionally over-zealous DNR, aliasing and occasional edge enhancement. Neither of these issues ever became distracting, but they were noticeable at times. Darker scenes occasionally have issues with skin tone, but skin appears to be accurate in most of the scenes. Crushing is also occasionally noticeable in some of the film’s darker moments.

These minor issues become less annoying once one considers the considerable detail, and excellent color exhibited in this transfer. The picture is extremely sharp, and blemishes and compression artifacts are never an issue. This is certainly an improvement on the DVD transfers of the film.

Screenshot 4

Sound Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Surprisingly, the two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix isn’t as good as one might expect. Nothing here seems to be properly prioritized. This never becomes distracting, but it does seem unfortunate that more care wasn’t put into the track.

Screenshot 5

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Story of Frenzy – (SD) – (44:46)

Laurent Bouzereau introduces this surprisingly comprehensive documentary about the creation of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s darkest films. Anthony Shaffer, Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Anna Massey, Patricia Hitchcock, and Peter Bogdanovich are on hand to talk about the production. Alfred Hitchcock fans will be thrilled to have this included on the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:55)

This trailer is in the same tradition as his trailers for Psycho and The Birds, and is a classic in its own right. Not content to simply show footage from the film, Alfred Hitchcock prefers to entertain the viewer as he promotes Frenzy.

Production Photographs – (SD) – (17:01)

This collection of posters, advertisements, stills, and ‘behind the scenes’ photos isn’t complete, but it is nice to see them included on the disk.

Screenshot 6

Final Words:

Frenzy was an incredible return to form for Alfred Hitchcock in 1972, and it remains an extremely effective film today. This Blu-ray release isn’t perfect, but it is the best home video release of the film.

Review by: Devon Powell

Screenshot 7

For more information about Frenzy, check out Raymond Foery’s excellent book, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece.”

Advertisements

Blu-ray Review: Torn Curtain

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Release Date: October 1, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 128 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

Title screenshot

“I got the idea from the disappearance of the two British diplomats, Burgess and MacLean, who deserted their country and went to Russia. I said to myself, ‘“What did Mrs. MacLean think of the whole thing?’

So, you see, the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view, until we have the dramatic showdown between the young couple in the hotel room in Berlin. From here on I take Paul Newman’s point of view…Then, the last part of the film is the couple’s escape. As you see, the picture is clearly divided into three sections.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

When scholars and critics write about the perceived failures of Alfred Hitchcock’s final five features, they tend to blame the decrease in quality on Alfred Hitchcock’s ego. The director had been lionized by the French nouvelle vague as a serious artist in the proceeding years, and there is no doubt that Hitchcock took notice. Certain critics have suggested that this forced the director to alter his strategy. While the director did have an ego that rivaled the size of his corpulent figure, this particular reasoning is faulty. It does not take in to account the environment in which these films were made. Context is everything.

The director’s downfall was not his own ego (although, one must admit that this is probably the more interesting theory). Alfred Hitchcock’s creative decent was instead the lucrative contract that he entered into with Universal Studios in August of 1964. He signed away ownership of Shamley Productions (including the distribution rights to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), as well as the rights to the five Paramount films that belonged to the director. This made Alfred Hitchcock a very rich man, and the third largest shareholder in Universal Studios. This financial security came with a price. The incredible amount of creative freedom that the director enjoyed during his years at Paramount was greatly restricted. Lew Wasserman was much more than Alfred Hitchcock’s agent now. As the head of Universal and its corporate parent MCA, he was now his boss.

This brings us to Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain… or Alfred Hitchcock’s compromised production of Universal’s Torn Curtain.

Alfred Hitchcock had originally planned one of his dream projects; an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. After completing Marnie, the director went to work with Jay Presson Allen on the screenplay. The film was originally intended to star ‘Tippi’ Hedren, but another actress would have likely been cast had the director been allowed to make the film. The trouble with the project was simply that it was a departure from what the suits of Universal considered a “Hitchcock film.”

Alfred Hitchcock discussed the film with enthusiasm in an interview for The Times in June of 1964 (a few months before his contract with Universal would kill the project). “I see it essentially as a horror story” claimed the director. The surviving drafts of the Mary Rose scripts suggest that the film was to be a mood piece that had more in common with Vertigo and Marnie than Hitchcock’s other work.

Universal preferred that the director focus on a project that was more in line with his classic spy films. This probably had something to do with the fact that James Bond thrillers were always good box office, and studio suits like to keep up with current trends. This would be the first of two productions that Hitchcock took on to satisfy Lew Wasserman and Universal (the other was Topaz).

Hitchcock had originally contacted Vladimir Nabokov requesting that he work with him on the screenplay for what would become Torn Curtain. Unfortunately, the two men were unable to synchronize their schedules. Alfred Hitchcock then reluctantly turned to Brian Moore to help him on the script. The writer eventually agreed to work with the director, but was never satisfied with the script.

Hitchcock was also disillusioned with the project, and eventually hired Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall in the hopes that they could save the script. Unfortunately, the script issues made for a chaotic production.

“We often found ourselves revising scenes only hours before they were to be shot… A messenger would be waiting to rush our latest rewrites across to the Torn Curtain sound stage, where they would be thrust into the hands of the actors even as Hitchcock lit them for the scene.” -Keith Waterhouse (as quoted in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light)

However, the problems inherent in Torn Curtain aren’t entirely script-related. As a matter of fact, many scholars agree that the script of Torn Curtain is actually quite strong.

The film would have been vastly improved by proper casting. Universal wanted Torn Curtain to be a return to the director’s glory days. This of course meant that Hitchcock would have to cast huge box-office stars. Hitchcock attempted to sign Cary Grant to the film, but Grant was unable to participate (and was planning retirement). This is just as well. The studio wasn’t at all interested in Cary Grant. Younger stars would bring a larger (and younger) audience to the theaters. Since Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were currently top box office attractions, they lobbied very hard for Hitchcock to cast both actors. Hitchcock wasn’t convinced that either actor was appropriate for the film, but eventually gave in to studio pressure. This resulted in a rather cold and distant relationship with both stars (especially Newman).

“Hitchcock took enormous exception to Newman’s detailed notes on the script and to the lengthy time the actor required to get into character.” –Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

It was also extremely costly to cast the actors. Andrews and Newman were paid more than Hitchcock had to spend on the rest of the production. This money could have been put to better use considering the fact that neither actor was appropriate for their roles.

Hitchcock’s contract with Universal even led to the end of one of Hitchcock’s most important creative relationships. Bernard Herrmann provided the score for every film that Hitchcock had made since The Trouble with Harry in 1955. (The composer was even hired as a sound consultant on The Birds, which didn’t have a score.) He was to continue this tradition with Torn Curtain.

Things were changing in the nineteen sixties. Films were marketed to teenagers, and these undeveloped minds needed to be appeased by the Hollywood factory. If younger audiences didn’t go to the cinema to see Hitchcock’s newest film, it would not be a financial success. Universal didn’t want an artistically appropriate score for Torn Curtain. They wanted a hit record that would interest these young minds and bring them into the cinemas. Herrmann’s scores were brilliant, but they weren’t commercial. The studio suits made their intentions clear to Hitchcock.

Lew Wasserman suggested that Hitchcock hire a younger composer to the film to deliver them the commercial score that Universal wanted. Alfred Hitchcock preferred to give Herrmann the chance to write such a score (hoping that the composer could pull off something that was both commercial and appropriate for the film).

Hitchcock wrote Herrmann a telegram on November 4, 1965 that elaborated on his intentions for the score.

“Dear Benny,

To follow up Peggy’s conversation with you let me say at first I am very anxious for you to do the music on Torn Curtain. I was extremely disappointed when I heard the score of Joy in the Morning. Not only did I find it conforming to the old pattern, but extremely reminiscent of the Marnie music. In fact, the theme was almost the same. Unfortunately for we artists, we do not have the freedom that we would like to have because we are catering to an audience and that is why you get your money and I get mine.

This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater. It is young, vigorous, and demanding. It is this fact that has been recognized by almost all of the European film makers where they have sought to introduce a beat and rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of the aforementioned audience. This is why I am asking you to approach this problem with a receptive, and if possible, enthusiastic mind. If you cannot do this, then I am the loser. I have made up my mind that this approach to the music is extremely essential. I also have very definite ideas as to where the music should go in the picture and there is not too much.

So often have I been asked, for example, by Tiomkin to come and listen to a score, and when I express my disapproval, his hands were thrown up and with the cry of ‘but you can’t change anything now. It has all been orchestrated.’ It is this kind of frustration that I am rather tired of. By that, I mean getting music scored on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.

Another problem this music has got to be sketched in an advance because we have an urgent problem of meeting a tax date. We will not finish shooting until the middle of January at the earliest, and Technicolor requires the complete picture by February 1st.

Sincerely, Hitch” –Alfred Hitchcock (Telegram to Bernard Herrmann as presented in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

Herrmann’s response suggests that the composer was willing to accommodate Hitchcock’s request. However, one can also read the reply as tactful condescension.

“Delighted [to] compose [a] vigorous beat score for Torn Curtain. Always pleased [to] have your views regarding music for your film. Please send [the] script indicating where you desire music. [I] can then begin composing here. [I] will be ready [to] record [the] week after [the] final shooting date.

Good Luck. Bernard” – Bernard Herrmann (Telegram to Alfred Hitchcock as presented in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

It isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Hitchcock might have been slightly frustrated with Herrmann when the score delivered was not what he requested. It is simply a shame that a good partnership was destroyed due to studio pressure. Herrmann was replaced with John Addison, and it is Addison’s music that is heard in the film. Herrmann felt that Universal was having a negative effect on Hitchcock’s creativity. The composer claimed that previous collaborations were always successful.

“…But he wasn’t then working for Universal. He became a different man. They made him very rich, and they recalled it to him. And I told Lew Wasserman he could go to hell. I do what I like to do… I said to Hitchcock, ‘What do you find in common with these hoodlums?’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Do they add to your artistic life?’ ‘No.’ ‘They drink your wine?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘That’s about all. What did they ever do? Made you rich? Well, I’m ashamed of you.’” -Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)

Bernard Herrmann wasn’t the only collaborator that Alfred Hitchcock lost. Marnie marked the final film that Hitchcock made with two other very important collaborators. Robert Burks (cinematographer) had worked with the director on every film he made since Strangers on a Train in 1951 (with the exception of Psycho), and George Tomasini (editor) had worked on every Hitchcock film since Rear Window (with the exception of The Trouble with Harry).  Tomasini had passed away on November 22, 1964. Robert Burks passed away in a terrible house fire on May 11, 1968. It is not clear why Burks didn’t participate on Torn Curtain, but he has no 1966 credits to his name. The talents of both men were sorely missed by both Alfred Hitchcock and his audiences.

If Alfred Hitchcock’s ego was his downfall, it was because it had been deflated. Universal’s overwhelming control over his productions, and the lackluster reception of his most recent films took a toll on his self esteem. If he bowed to the studio’s interference, it was because he no longer had the strength to challenge it. His creative team was no longer with him. He was growing older, and becoming less popular. His confidence had been destroyed.

Of course, critics and audiences were disappointed by Torn Curtain. Reviews weren’t hostile, but certainly expressed an uneasy dissatisfaction. Variety set the tone with their review on December 31, 1965.

“…Writing, acting and direction make clear from the outset that Newman is loyal, although about one-third of [picture] passes before this is made explicit in dialog. This early telegraphing diminishes suspense.

Hitchcock freshens up his bag of tricks in a good potpourri which becomes a bit stale through a noticeable lack of zip and pacing.” -Variety (December 31, 1965)

Bosley Crowther was more specific in his criticism of the film for The New York Times.

“Alfred Hitchcock was saying to a reporter for The New York Times a few months back that he had never known a time when it was so difficult to get a skilled script writer in Hollywood. Evidently he was hinting, in his familiarly suave and subtle way, that the script for his new film, Torn Curtain, which he was shooting at the time, was something short of perfection — at least, not what he would have it be.

If that was his innuendo, he was absolutely right. For Torn Curtain, which opened yesterday at the DeMille, the 34th Street East and the Coronet, is a pathetically undistinguished spy picture, and the obvious reason is that the script is a collection of what Mr. Hitchcock most eschews — clichés…

…The idea is not insufficient for a fictitious spy film of the sort that Mr. Hitchcock has many times managed to make scamper and skip across the screen. The locale and circumstances should do for a characteristic lark. But here he is so badly burdened with a blah script by Brian Moore and a hero and a heroine (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) who seem to miss the point, that he has come up with a film that plows through grimly, without any real surprises, suspense or fun.

Significant of something or other is the fact that the strongest episode — the most spontaneous and engaging — is the secret killing of a security guard who has trailed the hero to an East German farmhouse and discovered him making contact with a secret agent there. The frenzy with which Mr. Newman and a frightened farm woman, played with commendable spontaneity by Carolyn Conwell, go about slaughtering the fellow, who is harder to kill than Rasputin, and the deftness with which they dispatch him, are the most exciting details in the film.

There is also another episode which was probably expected to be uniquely amusing and moving, but, alas, it is so unsubtly don — so bluntly staged and archly acted — that it stands out like a sore, useless thumb. It is an episode in which the fleeing couple run afoul of a Polish countess, played by the little actress Lila Kedrova, who was so wonderful in Zorba the Greek, and are tediously importuned by her to help her get to America. It’s as though Mr. Hitchcock stopped his picture — stopped the chase, stopped everything — and gave the virtuoso Miss Kedrova a chance to do her stuff.

But at that she is more inventive, more expressive in this one little bit than Mr. Newman or Miss Andrews are throughout the film. They seem to have no sense whatsoever of the fancifulness of the piece, no ability or willingness to play it strictly with tongue in cheek. Mr. Newman goes at it really as though he meant to pick a German scientist’s brain, and Miss Andrews is like an English nanny who means to see that no harm comes to him…

…In these times, with James Bonds cutting capers and pallid spies coming in out of the cold, Mr. Hitchcock will have to give us something a good bit brighter to keep us amused.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times – July 28, 1966)

This review for The Times suggests that critics were slightly more receptive overseas. While disappointment is still palpable, criticism is cushioned by faint praise.

“…You see, the subject does seem – whichever way one looks at it – cut out for serious treatment, in black-and-white, with a lot of mystery and anguish… It is a nightmare situation which Mr. Hitchcock could so easily and so superbly treat nightmarishly a la The Wrong Man or Psycho. Instead, oddly, he has chosen to treat the whole thing as a lightweight adventure entertainment: the heroine’s mental agonies are rapidly soothed by some quick explanations on a studio hillside which looks like something out of the Ideal Homes garden section (no, of course, he is not a traitor — he is a spy), and then off we go on a very jolly battle of wits.

Once we adjust, and the film adjusts, this is very agreeable and expert. The couple’s adventures on the way out of Germany are handled in a straightforward suspense style, but then of that Mr. Hitchcock is a past master. …And it is certain that, at any rate, no one will be bored.

But still a slight feeling of dissatisfaction persists. There is too much careless plotting in the first half, and Mr. Hitchcock’s demonstration of how difficult it is in fact to kill someone misfires because the mistakes the would-be killers make are surely not those — equally damaging — that anyone in a similar situation really would make. And the stars, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, are after all pretty wasted on pasteboard roles, since both are better as actors than as straight star personalities. All the same, the film remains great fun for most of its length, and it would be silly to let regret for what it might have been and is not blind us to the considerable advantages of what it actually is…” -The Times (August 10, 1966)

Torn Curtain isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s best work, but it is certainly worth watching for the place that it occupies in his career.

Screenshot 2

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

The Masterpiece Collection

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.

collection page

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (as seen at the top of this article).

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

Screenshot 3

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Since Universal’s Hitchcock Blu-rays rang from wonderful to horrible, it is difficult not to be apprehensive as a consumer. Luckily, their 1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks superior to all of the previous home video releases of Torn Curtain. The entire look of the transfer screams “celluloid” (which is a blessing). Detail is excellent and the image showcases textures and edges beautifully (even if the look of the film is somewhat soft). There are a few unfortunate issues with noise and other anomalies, but the intentionally subdued color palette is handled carefully here, and showcases accurate contrast and black levels. There may have been a few instances of slight color bleeding, but these were never distracting. Luckily any digital noise reduction seems to have been handled more carefully than on a few of the other Universal titles. This isn’t among the best transfers in the Universal Hitchcock catalog, but it is more than anyone can really expect.

Screenshot 4

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Hitchcock’s sound design is as carefully constructed as his visuals, a proper audio presentation is essential. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix has been handled nicely here. The mix is clean and clear with well prioritized dialogue, and even the most subtle sound effects can be heard in the appropriate manner. John Addison’s music is given more room to breath because of the lossless quality of the track, which sets it apart from the DVD releases.

Screenshot 5

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Torn Curtain Rising – (SD) – (32 minutes) –

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary for Torn Curtain is in a very different format than the documentaries for most of the other films in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. Instead of retrospective interviews from members of the cast and crew, Trev Broudy narrates the program, and relays information about the film’s production and reception to the audience. This narration is of course illustrated with clips from the film, production stills, and other related artifacts. The reason for this alternative approach is likely due to the fact that living members of the cast and crew were unable or unwilling to participate. This is certainly our loss because this format is less engaging. However, it is a lot better than nothing, and it is nice to have this included. There is quite a bit of interesting information here.

Scenes Scored by Bernard Herrmann – (SD) – (14 minutes) –

Fans of Bernard Herrmann will agree that this Blu-ray disc could have never been complete without this particular supplement. Audiences are given the opportunity to view a number of scenes with Alfred Hitchcock’s original score in tact (instead of John Addison’s music).

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (3 minutes) –

Universal’s trailer for Torn Curtain is not as clever as other Hitchcock trailers, but it is nice to have this marketing artifact included on the disc.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

This is a standard definition presentation of production stills, behind the scenes photographs, posters, and advertisements for the film. It is nice to have these included.

Screenshot 6

Final Words:

Torn Curtain is recommended for all fans of Alfred Hitchcock. While this probably one of the director’s weakest American efforts, it still manages to pull off moments of absolute brilliance. Universal’s Blu-ray transfer is a definite upgrade from the previous DVD releases.

Review by: Devon Powell

Screenshot 7

Source Materials

The Times (Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s Zest for the Cinema – June 24, 1964)

Variety Review (December 31, 1965)

Bosley Crowther (The New York Times – July 28, 1966)

The Times (Mr. Hitchcock’s Fiftieth Film – August 10, 1966)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks – 1999)

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

Blu-ray Review: Saboteur

sab cover

 Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 07, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 109 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

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.

ss1

Saboteur was not successful to my mind, because I don’t think Cummings was right. He was too un-dramatic. He had what I call a ‘comedy face,’ and half the time you don’t believe the situations. Think of the difference between that and Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps… But what annoyed me most was the casting of the heavy, Otto Kruger. I had a concept: fascists in those days were middle-westerners, America-Firsters, and I wanted Harry Carey, western style, a rich rancher. His wife came to see me and she said, ‘I couldn’t let my husband play a role like that, when all the youth in America look up to him.’ So I couldn’t get him, and Kruger was all wrong. I also tried to get Barbara Stanwyck, but I had to take Priscilla Lane. I wanted Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper to lift the picture up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

It is difficult not to agree with Hitchcock’s opinion that casting was one of the major faults with Saboteur. The same script shot with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck would have been an altogether different experience. The film is essentially an American re-imagining of The 39 Steps, but with more overt political undertones (or overtones).

According to Leonard J. Leff in Hitchcock & Selznick, story editor Val Lewton advised Selznick against making yet another “chase film.”

“…but while Selznick could have forced Hitchcock to choose a property from the studio hopper, he deferred to him on story selection. Hitchcock worked best when he enjoyed at least the illusion of control. Against Lewton’s advice and his own better judgment, Selznick gave Hitchcock permission to develop an original narrative about sabotage…

…Hitchcock, along with Joan Harrison and Michael Hogan, developed a treatment for the Selznick picture. Their tale about a California munitions worker falsely charged with sabotage resembled The 39 Steps; the hero’s search for the actual turncoat included a love interest, several humorous and suspenseful episodes, and the dynamiting of a new dam to be opened by the president of the United States.

Whether Hitchcock dazzle could camouflage routine mechanics seemed questionable. Selznick read the story, noted the brittle plot devices, then called the stenographers up to Santa Barbra. He advised Hitchcock to ‘try to get something instead of [a] dam being blown up. This is not very new for a picture catastrophe.’ He also impelled him to address the weak human dimension, the characters’ ‘heart and emotional relationships.’

The brevity and tone of the memoranda suggested that Selznick lacked the concentration for sustained work and perhaps intended to sell both director and treatment to the highest bidder…” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

While one cannot argue that there are flaws in the film’s construction, these flaws weren’t helped by the writers that Selznick chose to help Hitchcock fix these issues.

“…Selznick assigned John Houseman to supervise the development of the screenplay and young Peter Viertel to write it. Neither choice benefited Saboteur… One Selznick reader called [the script] synthetic and ‘loosely strung together,’ the work of ‘an inferior Hitchcock imitator.’ Never a Hitchcock fan, Val Lewton found it ‘the sort that every studio rejects after a cursory reading.’” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Selznick was both unimpressed, and uninterested in making the film. However, he knew that he could make a nice profit by selling it to another studio. It was up to Alfred Hitchcock to sell the project if he wanted to make the film, and after being rejected by several studios (including Twentieth Century Fox and RKO), independent producer Frank Lloyd bought it. Hitchcock was glad to be away from Selznick, and Selznick was satisfied with his 300 percent profit. Apparently, it is quite lucrative to be a Hollywood talent-pimp.

“Hitchcock roared through the making of Saboteur. He exceeded the budget by only $3,000 and completed both script and principal photography in less than fifteen weeks, faster than any of his four American pictures to date…Yet to his chagrin; reviewers criticized Saboteur just as Selznick had months before… Harsh notices sent the director into a deep funk, his secretary recalled.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Leff paints a slightly more negative critical reception than the film actually received. Most critics found plenty of things to admire in Saboteur, but laced their compliments with negative reservations. One could best describe reception of the film as “mixed.” On April 29, 1942, Variety wrote a review of the film that set the tone for reviews to come.

“All the typical Alfred Hitchcock cinematic wrinkles are present in his newest picture, Saboteur, which he has made on a Selznick loan out for Universal release. It is violently typical Hitchcock. It has the same basic elements of chase melodrama, the romantic couple beset by sinister forces they only partly see and dimly understand, the complicated plot, fantastic situations, colorful minor characters, sardonic comedy touches and sudden, wild climax. It’s expert and enormously effective. It’ll get rave reviews, play holdover engagements and clean up at the box-office.

As Hitchcock continues to turn out pictures his methods become increasingly familiar and recognizable. For he is a vivid stylist whose stamp is unmistakably on every film he makes. It doesn’t matter at what studio or with whom he works. If Hitchcock directs it, it’s a Hitchcock picture.

In a way, that’s a supreme compliment, for nearly every film he’s made in recent years, whether in England or Hollywood, has been an outstanding critical and box office success. Nevertheless, it indicates a lack of versatility, since all his pictures tend to be similar, not only in type of story, but in the technical tricks by which he gets his effects, in the unvarying expression of his creative personality.

Saboteur is a little too self-consciously Hitchcock. Its succession of incredible climaxes, its mounting tautness and suspense, its mood of terror and impending doom could have been achieved by no one else. That is a great tribute to a brilliant director. But it would be a greater tribute to a finer director if he didn’t let the spectator see the wheels go ’round, didn’t let him spot the tricks — and thus shatter the illusion, however momentarily…” -Variety (April 29, 1942)

Of course a great deal of criticism came from the pretentious plausibility seekers that have no appreciation for Hitchcock’s special kind of fantasy. Bosley Crowther was always such a critic, and his review for The New York Times followed suit (even if it was veiled in condescending praise).

“…To put it mildly, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have really let themselves go. Melodramatic action is their forte, but they scoff at speed limits this trip. All the old master’s experience at milking thrills has been called upon. As a consequence—and according to Hitchcock custom—Saboteur is a swift, high-tension film which throws itself forward so rapidly that it permits slight opportunity for looking back. And it hurtles the holes and bumps which plague it with a speed that forcefully tries to cover them up.

In the style of some of his earlier British pictures, Mr. Hitchcock has filmed one long, relentless ‘chase’ in which an aircraft worker from a California plant races all the way across the country in vague pursuit of a hatchet-faced rat who attempted to set fire to the factory…

…So fast, indeed, is the action and so abundant the breathless events that one might forget, in the hubbub, that there is no logic in this wild-goose chase. Actually, there is no reason for the hero undertaking his mad pursuit, since the obvious and sensible method would be to have it conducted by the FBI. Consequently, one wonders—if one stops to wonder at all—why the hero is in such a dither as to his personal relations with the police, why—at any juncture—he shouldn’t hand the job over to the cops.

This possible intrusion of one’s reason might therefore tend to drain some of the harrowing tension from many of the tricky episodes. Particularly in the one sequence, where the hero and heroine seem to be coerced to silence at a party of innocent folk, one wonders why a word to a near-by general or admiral wouldn’t do to put an end to their peril. And how was a bomb ever set in the navy yard.

As usual, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have contrived excuses. But their casual presentation of the FBI as a bunch of bungling dolts, their general disregard of authorized agents and their slur on the navy yard police somewhat vitiates the patriotic implications which they have tried to emphasize in the film. One gathers that the nation’s safety depends entirely on civilian amateurs.

It goes almost without saying that some of the ‘Hitchcock touches’ are exceedingly clever, withal. The sequence with the circus freaks is a bit of capital satire, and the smashing, conclusive adventure should terrify a steeplejack… Apparently Mr. Hitchcock has endeavored to imitate his own The 39 Steps. But the going is not so even. He trips too often in his headlong ascent.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

Readers might notice a pattern of reserved praise in the reviews of Saboteur. This pattern continues in a review published in The Times. Everything in the review expresses admiration, but this is only after announcing to the reader that Hitchcock is repeating himself.

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock does not attempt anything startlingly original in Saboteur. He is content to take the old counters in the game of sabotage, flight and pursuit, and his interest, and that of the audience, lies in the cinematic pattern he makes of them.

Mr. Hitchcock has always been at his best in his suggestion of suspense. His silences are charged with meaning, with the feeling that menace is crouching in the corner ready to spring, and he is never afraid of keeping his camera immobile and working on the audience’s feelings by his prolonged concentration on one significant detail. Here the seconds the camera spends recording the gradual spread of a tear in a coat are the most effective in the film and other incidents, the sudden ringing of a telephone in a deserted shack, for instance, help to keep the adventure moving imaginatively as well as dramatically…” -The Times (May, 28 1942)

Today Saboteur is seen as “second-tier” Hitchcock, and this reviewer is very much in agreement with this opinion. However, the film is not inferior because it is another “chase film.” There were a number of unfortunate handicaps placed upon the production, as Donald Spoto relates in his essay about the film.

“It’s hard to deny that there’s a certain flatness to this film; there are moments when it looks so cheap you may think it was stitched together by an admirer of Hitchcock. This is at least partially explained by film budget restrictions in early 1942… that economy was invoked by a number of cheap background shots, painted backdrops, miniatures, and rear projections.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Since the government placed budget and set constraints upon the production, a number of cheaper B-movie alternatives were used to get Saboteur over this hurdle. It is also likely that Selznick’s apathy towards the project in the production’s earliest stages damaged the script’s development. In fact, final analysis finds this reviewer disagreeing with Hitchcock’s claim that “the picture was overloaded with too many ideas.” The real issue was that these ideas were not developed and executed as well as some of his other features.

Screenshot: Robert Cummings as Barry Kane

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Collection Page

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

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

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

Screenshot: Otto Kruger

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur’s 1080p image transfer is one of the best offered in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. One might be alarmed at a bit of noise and film damage during the opening credits, but these issues disappear after this sequence. The rest of the film is beautifully rendered, and Joseph Valentine’s photography shines with fine detail that was never seen in DVD transfers of the film. While brightness occasionally fluctuates, this is inherent in the aged film prints. The transfer is only as good as the source prints, and this fluctuation is never distracting. Blacks are deep and inky, and enhance an image that already contains excellent contrast without losing any detail. Mid-range grays are perfectly gorgeous, and balance the image nicely. A fine layer of grain betrays the film’s celluloid source and provides a cinematic atmosphere. This is the best that the film has looked on home video.

Screenshot: Priscilla Lane

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This two-channel DTS-HD Mono track should please the purist, and impress audiophiles that respect fidelity to a film’s original soundtrack. Saboteur has never sounded as clean and clear as it does here. Distractions such as hiss never become an issue on this transfer, and dialogue is always intelligible. One can hear sounds that weren’t quite clear in DVD issues of the film. It is nice to see that the audio was given the same amount of respect that was afforded to the image.

Screenshot

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur: A Closer Look – (SD) – (35 min)

This excellent documentary short directed by Laurent Bouzereau was originally included on Saboteur’s first DVD release. This was back in the day when special features offered audiences more than short pieces of fluff that do not amount to anything more than a waste of the viewer’s time.

The documentary offers the viewer a glimpse at the film’s production, relying heavily on two interview participants. The first of these participants is Norman Lloyd (actor), and the second is Robert Boyle. Patricia Hitchcock is also here as a secondary source to fill in a few holes, and archive footage of John Houseman allows him to make an appearance. This program isn’t quite as comprehensive as Bouzereau’s excellent feature length documentaries about Psycho and The Birds, but it is a significant look at the film that renders additional supplements almost gratuitous. It would be very difficult to add anything significant to what is relayed in this piece.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Saboteur’s trailer is actually rather interesting. While it is not as creative as those for Hitchcock’s later features, it is more than a mere series of clips from the film. Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) hosts the trailer in much the same manner that James Stewart hosts the trailer for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). It is very nice to have this included in the collection.

Storyboards – (SD) – (4 min)

Universal has also seen fit to provide viewers with a gallery of storyboard drawings for the Statue of Liberty sequence. This should delight fans and film students.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Sketches – (SD) – (1 min)

A selection of drawings and storyboards by Alfred Hitchcock were used to help Robert Boyle in the production design, and some of these are included on this disc. They make an excellent companion to the other storyboards included here.

Production Photographs – (SD) – (8 min)

This photo gallery includes movie posters, vintage ads, and production photos. These images are often a very interesting glimpse at the marketing of the film.

Screenshot

Final Words:

Saboteur is “second-tier” Hitchcock, but it is also first-rate entertainment. While casual fans may not wish to add this film to their collection, it should certainly be worth a rental for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Those who do wish to add this Hitchcock film to their collection can rest easy in the knowledge that the disc exhibits an excellent picture and sound transfer.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Materials:

 Review (Variety, April 29, 1942)

Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

 Review (The Times, May, 28 1942)

Alfred Hitchcock Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

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

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho

cover2

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. The exact same disc has recently been re-released with the same transfer, supplements, and artwork (minus the 50th Anniversary label). The only difference between the two releases is that the more recent edition comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

Steelbook Cover

There is also a Limited Steelbook Edition of Psycho. This release contains the same transfer and supplements as the previous discs, but will be presented in a steelbook case with new artwork.

Steelbook Back Cover

For more a detailed review on all three releases:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition.

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Gone With the Wind – 75th Anniversary Edition

Gone With the Wind – 75th Anniversary EditionDistributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: September 30, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 3:53:14

Video: 1080P (VC-1 Video)

Main Audio: English Dolby TrueHD Audio (48 kHz, 16-bit)

English Dolby Digital Mono

Alternate Audio:

French 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish Dolby Digital Mono German 5.1 Dolby Digital Italian 5.1 Dolby Digital Japanese Dolby Digital Mono Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23 Mbps

Notes: This title comes with a digital Ultraviolet copy of the film.

This has been given a number of Blu-ray releases. Each of these releases is different in various ways. This edition contains all of the supplements that were included with the 70th Anniversary Edition (with the exception of the CD of Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind score), along with a brand new Blu-ray disc that features two new featurettes. The memorabilia included in this set is also different than that included in the 70th Anniversary Edition.

Screenshot 1

“I recognize, perhaps even more than you, the problem with leangth. I am prepared for a picture that will be extremely long in any case…” -David O. Selznick (Memo to Sidney Howard)

When Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood to make films with David O. Selznick in 1939, his employer was in the middle of another major production. That production would become one of the most beloved films of all time.

Gone with the Wind is the quintessential Hollywood epic, and remains history’s all-time domestic box-office champion ($1.6 billion – if adjusted for inflation), with more tickets sold than any other movie ever made. It is David O. Selznick’s magnum opus, despite the producer’s attempts to surpass the success of the film.

The production was originally helmed by George Cukor, but Selznick replaced the director with Victor Fleming shortly after the film began production. Despite a somewhat troubled production, the film was a hit with audiences and critics alike. It captured 10 Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (the first Oscar awarded to an African-American actor), Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Editing.

Despite evolving tastes (and heightened awareness of the troublesome sociopolitical elements in the film), Gone with the Wind remains one of the most well loved and influential films from the early studio system. The film is embedded firmly into our culture, and will likely remain there for many years to come.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, Warner Brothers has released a collectable package that should delight fans of the film.

Screenshot 2

The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Insert for the back of the package.

This beautiful Collector’s Set is housed in a numbered box (11″ x 8″ by 2 1/4″) with attractive film related artwork. Along with the 4-disc Blu-ray/DVD set (which is housed in the standard Blu-ray casing), fans are provided with a replica of Rhett Butler’s Monogrammed Handkerchief (which bears the initial RB), and a Music Box paperweight playing Tara’s theme with an image on top of the Rhett-Scarlett kiss.

Also included is a 36-page Companion Booklet entitled Forever Scarlett: The Immortal Style of Gone with the Wind. The book features an essay written by New York fashion designer (and Project Runway finalist) Austin Scarlett, and is illustrated with beautiful photos from the film.

The discs all have uniform static menus that are adorned with an attractive film related image.

Screenshot 3

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers often impresses with their excellent restorations and image transfers. Gone with the Wind is no exception. Unlike many studios, they tend to treat their back catalog of classics with the proper amount of respect and fanfare. Better yet, they offer exquisite Blu-ray releases of these titles.

While the silkscreen artwork on the disc might suggest a new transfer, the 75th Anniversary Edition contains the same transfer that was used for the film’s 70th Anniversary release. This should please fans, because the 70th Anniversary 8K restoration transfer was absolutely amazing.

This VC-1 image transfer exhibits a sharpness that is very often nonexistent on films from this particular era. The film’s original 1.37:1 transfer is maintained, and showcased in all of its glory. The image contains just the right amount of grain to betray Gone with the Wind’s celluloid source, but manages to remain at an attractive level that does not distract the viewer. Colors are usually brilliant and showcase Scarlett’s many gowns with the proper majesty. Some may find skin tones to look slightly jaundiced at times, but one can probably blame the source (and it is always to a minimal degree). The mise-en-scène is given a level of detail and depth that was never seen in previous home video transfers. Compression is never a problem in the transfer (as one might expect from a film of this length). Warner Brothers should give lessons to other studios on how to properly treat catalog releases. They can use this transfer of Gone with the Wind as a visual aid.

Screenshot 4

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This 75th Anniversary disc offers the film’s Original Mono soundtrack, as well as a 5.1 Mix in TrueHD. This should pacify the purists while also pleasing those who prefer the more dynamic mixes of recent films. To be honest, the 5.1 mix is rather modest. It probably wouldn’t aggravate purists as much as they might initially believe. Dialogue remains in the center channels and is consistently clear and clean. Surround channels add just the right amount of subtle depth during the films more epic moments. The hiss that washes over the film’s original Mono track is absent here. Better yet, the digital clean up didn’t noticeably disturb high end sounds. During moments where musical orchestration takes over, it can sound the slightest bit boxy (as it would in a mono mix). This is forgivable, because one cannot improve on the source elements. This is the best that the film has ever sounded on home video.

Screenshot 5

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

This 75th Anniversary Edition might very well surpass the previous 70th Anniversary Edition release as far as supplementary material is concerned. In addition to the supplements included on the 70th Anniversary discs, fans are given a brand new disc of interesting extras.

DISC 1 (The Movie):

Commentary by Historian Rudy Behlmer

Thankfully, most of the supplements were reserved for the additional discs.

However, fans are given a Commentary track with Rudy Behlmer that surpasses ones expectations. Behlmer gives an extremely accessible lesson to viewers about the film’s production that never becomes overly dry or scholarly. The track should also please people interested in the differences between Margaret Mitchell’s source novel and film version. One might be hesitant to sit through a commentary track for a film that is nearly four hours in length, but those brave enough to do so will be richly rewarded.

Screenshot 5

DISC 2 (Special Features):

The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind – (SD) – (2:03:36)

This feature-length documentary was produced in 1988 by Daniel Selznick, L. Jeffrey Selznick, and Jonathan Wickham. It is interesting to note that David O. Selznick’s sons are producers on this comprehensive documentary on their father’s most famous film. The documentary won a Peabody Award®, which seems to be extremely well deserved. It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive glimpse into the background of this film (or any film). At over two hours in length, is much better than the usual EPK “making of” featurettes that have become the norm. Fans are given a very real glimpse into the film’s production as home movies, screen tests, and other related footage illustrate the interviews and narration provided. It is essential viewing for fans of Gone with the Wind!

Gone With the Wind: The Legend Lives On – (SD) – (33 min)

This short program focuses more on the film’s legacy than on the actual production of the film. It discusses the film’s profitable re-issues to theatres, the growing fan base, and the many collectors who have much more than a casual love for the film. It is always interesting, and works as a companion piece to The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind.

Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia de Havilland – (SD) – (38:43)

Olivia de Havilland turns out to be an extremely articulate storyteller. Here she takes viewers into a detailed account of her experiences shooting Gone with the Wind. It is certainly one of the many highlights on this disc, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year – (SD) – (1:08:20)

Many people consider 1939 to be the most outstanding year for the motion picture industry. Kenneth Branagh narrates this documentary that looks at some of the wonderful films to come out of Hollywood during these twelve months. The program is organized by studio, and gives us just enough contextual information for viewers to absorb the information in a useful manner.

Gable: The King Remembered – (SD) – (1:05:03)

Peter Lawford hosts this documentary on Clark Gable. It is slightly more comprehensive than one might expect, and is extremely interesting. Fans of the actor should be thrilled to have it included. It is really quite interesting.

Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond – (SD) – (46:05)

It is nice to see a program about Vivien Leigh included on this disc. Not only was the actress a major part of the film’s success, but she was also an incredibly interesting personality. Jessica Lange hosts this look into Leigh’s career. It is always engaging, but fans might wish for a more detailed and comprehensive account of her life. While we are given a relatively comprehensive account of her stage and screen work, her personal life is discussed as a mere subplot. Her illnesses are covered in enough depth to be interesting, but viewers are likely to yearn for more a more comprehensive look into these issues.

Movieola: The Scarlett O’Hara Wars – (SD) – (1:37:47)

The Scarlett O'Hara War2Moviola was a 3-part miniseries for NBC that aired in 1980. It was based on a book by Garson Kanin. The three parts were all quite different, and were titled The Silent Lovers, This Year’s Blonde, and The Scarlett O’Hara Wars. Each of the three episodes stands alone, and each has been shown as separate made-for-television movies. The Scarlett O’Hara Wars was the most popular of the three films, and is included here for fans of Gone with the Wind to enjoy. The story is about the infamous search for Scarlett O’Hara, and features Tony Curtis as David O. Selznick.

This telefilm certainly doesn’t replace the other features on this disc when it comes to actual information. However, fans of Gone with the Wind should at the very least enjoy it as a curiosity.

The Supporting Players – (SD) – (30 min)

Fans are given short video profiles of various actors that played supporting roles in the film. Each profile is approximately two to four minutes in length. While each profile is interesting, none are comprehensive. However, these little snippets do give viewers an appreciation for the film’s secondary cast members. It is nice to see that these wonderful performers weren’t forgotten.

The disc divides these profiles into categories (and sometimes subcategories):

At Tara:

The O’Hara Plantation in Georgia: Short profiles on Thomas Mitchell and Barbara O’Neill

Their Daughters: Short profiles on Evelyn Keyes and Ann Rutherford

The House Servants: Short profiles on Hattie McDaniel, Oscar Polk, and Butterfly McQueen

At Twelve Oaks:

Short profiles on Leslie Howard, Rand Brooks, and Carroll Nye

In Atlanta:

Short profiles on Laura Hope Crews, Eddie Anderson, Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell, Ona Munson, and Cammie King

Newsreel: Dixie Hails Gone With the Wind – (SD) – (4 min)

It is nice to see that a vintage newsreel is included that covers Gone with the Wind’s premiere in Atlanta, Georgia. Fans will thoroughly enjoy seeing all of the footage contained in this interesting newsreel.

Newsreel: Atlanta Civil War Centennial – (SD) – (4 min)

In 1961 there was a Re-issue of Gone with the Wind to commemorate the anniversary of the Civil War. This re-release saw a second premiere in Atlanta. Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and David O. Selznick attended the premiere and were captured in this newsreel covering the event. This particular reel is mostly silent, but remains interesting.

Restoring a Legend – (SD) – (18 min)

This featurette focuses on the UltraResolution restoration given to Gone with the Wind for its 2004 DVD release. It is included here because the UltraResolution process informs restoration procedures today. It is interesting to see how much effort goes into a restoration. . International Prologue – (SD) – (1 min)

While those who lived in the United States were aware of the basics of Civil War history, those in other countries were less knowledgeable about these things. To remedy this, a prologue was added to the release prints for foreign release. This prologue is included here for fans. It is interesting to see this included here.

The Old South – (SD) – (11 min)

This short was directed by Fred Zinnemann and released by MGM. A short introduction explains that it was produced to provide a cultural background for viewers of Gone with the Wind in foreign territories. It also warns that some of the scenes are racially insensitive. That might be the understatement of the century. However, this only adds to the interest of this short documentary on ‘The Old South.’ The film probably provides an accurate representation of the small minded attitudes of the era.

Foreign Language Versions – (SD) – (3 min)

After a short introduction, fans are provided with a few clips from the Foreign Language dubs of Gone with the Wind.

Trailer Gallery:

Original Theatrical Trailer (1939)

Civil War Centennial Trailer (1961)

70mm Reissue Trailer (1967)

Reissue Trailer (1969)

50th Anniversary Trailer

Warner Brothers has provided fans with short introductions that provide each of these trailers with contextual information so that we know exactly what we are watching.

Screenshot 7

DISC 3 (75th Anniversary Special Features):

Old South/New South – (1080P) – (26:50)

This featurette is a light-weight discussion by various “authorities” on the south. It discusses the somewhat naïve presentation of the south in Gone with the Wind, and compares the film’s depiction of slavery with the harsh realities of slavery. It discusses the civil war, and balances a quiet respect of southern culture with a practical criticism of the darker underbelly behind the culture. This never really penetrates the surface of the topic, but does manage to raise a lot of essential questions in the viewer.

The trouble is that the featurette digresses into a discussion of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans culture. While one understands why Katrina was mentioned, it seems to linger in this territory for much too long. It never quite meshes with the first half of the program.

Gone With the Wind: Hollywood Comes to Atlanta – (1080P) – (12:38)

This reviewer’s favorite of the two new featurettes is this raw footage from the Atlanta premiere. Much of this footage seems to have been prepared for the popular newsreels of the era. The footage is accompanied throughout with the film’s score. Much of the footage is silent, but some of these clips come with a soundtrack.

This is an interesting look at the sort of ballyhoo that Hollywood was once so very good at.

Screenshot 8

DISC 4 (Mini-Series DVD):

When the Lion Roars – (SD) – (366 min)

WHEN THE LION ROARSThis documentary mini-series aired on TNT over the span of three nights in 1992. Turner Broadcasting’s production surprisingly rises above the typical glitzy promotional approach that one might expect from such a production. Of course, Patrick Stewart’s narration is sometimes corny, and often naive. (Who can honestly prefer a time when stars were committed to slavish contracts that gave them very little say in their careers?) That said; the nostalgic atmosphere is probably appropriate for a documentary that documents the rise and fall of one of Hollywood’s most sensational studios.

The program is broken up into three segments, all running a little over two hours each, making the complete over 6 hours long!

The Lions Roar:

This first episode of the mini-series discusses the earliest days of MGM and covers the history of Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s origins, the studios earliest silent successes, Louis B. Mayer’s appointing Irving Thalberg as head of production at MGM, Thalberg’s success at MGM, the studios early stars, the rise of the talkies, and works its way to Thalberg’s 1936 death.

The Lion Reigns Supreme:

This second episode follows MGM’s next 10 years and features information on David O. Selznick’s success at the studio, Mayer as studio father (or tyrant), the next generation of MGM stars, various MGM craftsmen, various film series of the era, and the incredibly dark (but extremely successful) war years.

The Lion in the Winter:

This third episode discusses the studio’s downfall. The meat of the film begins in 1948, when the studio struggles through two successive years of financial decline. It then moves forward to discuss the introduction of Dory Schary as the studio’s head of production. Mayer finds that he differs from Schary (both politically and artistically), but Schary enjoys a number of successes. As time moves forward; Mayer is forced out of the studio, corporate takeovers ensue, and the studio becomes little more than a memory.

The documentary is surprisingly comprehensive, and anyone that has even the remotest interest in this topic will find that their 6 hours were well spent.

Screenshot 10
 Final Words:

This spectacular Warner Brothers release has earned an enthusiastic recommendation. If Gone with the Wind isn’t already a part of your Blu-ray collection, this 75th Anniversary Edition deserves a place of honor on your shelf.

Review by: Devon Powell

For information on the new book on the making of Gone with the Wind, follow this link:

https://hitchcockmaster.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/offbeat-book-review-the-making-of-gone-with-the-wind/

Blu-ray Review: Vertigo

91Z3gQZ1mEL._SL1500_

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region Free

Length: 2:08:27

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio:

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)

DTS English Mono

Alternate Audio:

DTS French Mono

DTS Spanish Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.90 Mbps

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

ss1

“Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to re-create the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around. What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blonde. James Stewart is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun. What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off. When he insists, she says, ‘All right!’ and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside. What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This dark statement is meant to illustrate the desperate sense of lust inherent in ‘Scottie’ Ferguson during the scene. Scenes like this one have added fuel to many of the myths written about the portly director. People might take issue with my use of the word myth, but the fact remains that there are a lot of myths about the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

In Truffaut’s famous interview with the director, Truffaut claimed that Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote ‘D’entre les morts’ especially for the director after learning of his interest in ‘Celle qui n’était plus.’ Henri-Georges Clouzot had purchased the property and turned it into Les Diaboliques (1955). Hitchcock was surprised by Truffaut’s claim, and denied that this was the case. Truffaut held firm. However, there is more evidence to suggest otherwise. Hitchcock was not the only one to deny this rumor.

“…But according to Thomas Narcejac, one of the book’s authors, this was never the case. He admits that Hitchcock and their writing team shared common interests, but in an interview conducted for this book, he maintained firmly that he and his collaborator never had any intention of writing a book especially for Hitchcock. The genesis of the idea for their second novel actually took place, much more provocatively, in a French cinema. As Narcejac was watching a newsreel, he felt he distinctly recognized a friend he had lost touch with during the war; the idea of discovering a lost acquaintance in such a way stayed with him, and it suggested the outline of a story.” -Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

According to Narcejac, this sort of thing was quite common in Europe after WWII.

“After the war there were many displaced people and families – it was common to have lost a friend. I began to think about the possibilities of recognizing someone like this. Maybe someone who was thought dead… and this is where ‘D’entre les morts’ began to take shape.” -Thomas Narcejac (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

 ss0

It would take a lot of effort and a number of writers to adapt the Boileau-Narcejac novel into a usable screenplay. In this adaptation a number of important changes were made. The most obvious of these changes was the setting. The novel took place in Paris and spans from the early years of WWII to the liberation. This aspect was quickly jettisoned in favor of [then] modern day San Francisco. (Of course, names were also changed and Americanized.) These are only the most obvious changes. A comparison of the book and the film will show that only the basic plot remains.

The book ends with the protagonist accidentally strangling the Madeleine/Renée character (Madeleine/Judy in the final film) after she finally confesses that she and the person he is trying to re-create is one and the same person. He then surrenders himself to the police, giving the dead Renée a tender kiss. Hitchcock and his writers make the protagonist more proactive and intelligent by allowing him to figure out the murder plot after he sees Carlotta’s necklace. This also allows for visual storytelling and a “subjective treatment” of the material.

Maxwell Anderson was the first writer to work on the film (without the benefit of Hitchcock’s help). Alfred Hitchcock was in Africa scouting locations for Flamingo Feather, a production that was abandoned shortly after the trip. When Anderson sent the director a rough draft titled ‘Darkling I Listen,’ it was found to be unusable. Some sources claim that it was incomprehensible, but it is more likely that it was simply not very interesting. Very little of Anderson’s work is evident in the final film, although there are certain locations in this draft that were used in the final film (such as the Golden Gate Bridge and San Juan Bautista).

After Angus MacPhail was unable to help the director work out a treatment, Hitchcock contacted Alec Coppel. On September 21, 1956 Coppel began working very closely with Hitchcock on the film’s construction.

“Hitchcock at once took him on a tour of likely San Francisco locations. Once Coppel had got the feel of the story, there followed a series of script conferences in October and November 1956, the results of which he consolidated into a patchwork document of 50 scenes, completed in early December. This lays out the story without dialogue, but often in great descriptive detail. When this was complete, Coppel spent several more weeks, before other commitments took him away, in developing this script, putting in what Hitchcock described as ‘dummy dialogue,’ most of it purely indicative and functional, a guide for later development.” –Charles Barr (Vertigo: BFI Film Classics)

ss2

Alfred Hitchcock was not entirely happy with the outline as it stood, but did feel that the project was finally taking shape. On December 4th, the director would write a letter to Maxwell Anderson requesting that the writer take a look at Coppel’s work and flesh it out into a proper screenplay. The letter was quite long and very detailed.

“…Now, Max, one final thing. I am really anxious to get mood, but not necessarily somber mood, into this love story. I don’t want us to get heavy handed with it. After all, Barrie’s MARY ROSE ha some of the elements of the first part of this story and, as you know, this quality was quite a fey one…

 …Please, Max, forgive me for being so long-winded about this, but this construction has taken many weeks of work with Mr. Coppel and myself, and I still wonder that after all the years of one’s experience why construction is such a hard job…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Letter to Maxwell Anderson as printed in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

Anderson declined to work on the script and Alfred Hitchcock finally settled on Samuel Taylor, who would add character dimension to the outline and make several other changes before finally finishing the screenplay.

“We had a talk and I said the first thing we have to do is make these people real. He said, ‘That’s what Jimmy Stewart said.’ The whole story is so unreal and so fantasized and you never touch reality at all. Therefore I have to create somebody who is completely in the real worlk who can test you, the man, so that you can come back to reality and say to the audience, ‘Is this a real world?’” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

Taylor created the character of Midge (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) and began fleshing out the script with Hitchcock.

“It was pure serendipity. We discovered as soon as we met that our minds worked alike and that we had a rapport. It seemed to be a rapport that didn’t have to be announced. So when we worked, especially at his house, we would sit and talk. We would talk about all sorts of things – talk about food, talk about wives, talk about travel. …We’d talk about the picture and there would be a long silence and we’d just sit and contemplate each other and Hitchcock would say, ‘Well, the motor is still running.’ And then all of a sudden we would pick up again and talk some more.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

ss12

There were times when Hitchcock’s health took him away from the project. The director underwent surgery twice. The first surgery was a hernia operation, and the second was due to complications with his gallbladder. When the director returned to the project, a significant change to the film’s construction was made. Up to this point, the murder conspiracy was not revealed until the very end of the film. With Taylor, Hitchcock decided to move this revelation earlier in the story.

“ Now, in the book, they didn’t reveal that she was one and the same woman until the end of the story. I shocked Sam Taylor, who worked on it, when I said, ‘When Stewart comes upon this brunette girl, Sam, this is the time for us to blow the whole truth.’ He said, ‘Good God, why?’ I told him, if we don’t what is the rest of our story until we do reveal the truth. A man has picked up a brunette and sees in her the possibilities of resemblance to the other woman.

Let’s put ourselves in the minds of our audience here: ‘So you’ve got a brunette and you’re going to change her.’ What story are we telling now? A man wants to make a girl over and then, at the very end, finds out it is the same woman. Maybe he kills her, or whatever. Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense… ‘ If we don’t let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on.

 ‘Now,’ I said, ‘one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, ‘I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?’ So, I said, ‘we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! Right then and there – show it’s one and the same woman.’ Then, when Stewart comes to the hotel for her, the audience says, ‘Little does he know.’

Second, the girl’s resistance in the earlier part of the film had no reason. Now you have the reason–she doesn’t want to be uncovered. That’s why she doesn’t want the gray suit, doesn’t want to go blond–because the moment she does, she’s in for it. So now you’ve got extra values working for you.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Taylor claims that this alteration was actually his idea.

“That’s a matter of my expertise as a playwright… and I kept saying to Hitchcock that there’s something missing. Then one day I said to him, ‘I know exactly what’s missing’ – I said, ‘It’s really a Hitchcockian thing.’ I was naturally being Hitchcock with him. I said, ‘This is not pure Hitchcock unless the audience knows what has happened,’ and he agreed.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

Whoever came up with the idea, Hitchcock was not completely confident about the decision. His doubts grew after the screenplay was finished. Taylor made a bid to have Coppel’s name removed from the screen credit and Coppel fought him (and rightly won). When Alec Coppel wrote the director about the dispute, the director’s doubt was solidified.

“…I am conscious of the new dialogue and the new character Midge (who does not amount to anything) – but if Sam Taylor had started with only the book as his guide he couldn’t possibly have arrived at this latest script.

Next time we meet I would like very much to know why you jettisoned the entire mystery of the novel, and our script when I left you, by telling the audience on page 112 the truth about Judy? I’m sure you had reasons – but it seems to me that after that exposé you can reach for your hat…” –Alec Coppel (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock as printed in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

ss11

Hitchcock’s uncertainty about the early reveal would last through the film’s post-production.

In the late 1990s, Herbert Colman remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s reluctance to give away the murder conspiracy.

“Well, there was quite a controversy… I wanted it in the final cut and so did Sam [Taylor]. Joan Harrison, the producer of his television series, got to Hitch and talked him into running it without the scene, and at that running it started a fight with Hitch and myself…

 Hitch and I stood face to face, arguing like hell about the film in front of everybody in the theater. They knew that Hitch was wrong, because Harrison jumped up and said, ‘This is the only way you should show it, Hitch.’ I took Hitch off to one side and continued to argue about it with him. Finally, our voices started rising, and everybody was sitting in the theater in absolute silence. Just the silence alone should have told Hitch it was wrong. We went to great expense to take it out; in the end, though, I won and it was put back in…

 …When he released the picture this way [without the confession], I had to call all the prints back that we had sent all over the country and re-cut the scene and redo the music and everything and send those out. In the meantime, Barney Balaban, the president of Paramount, who had seen the picture in its original form with the scene in, had gone back to New York and told everyone it was the greatest Hitchcock film.

 Just before the release date, between that time and the actual release date, Balaban, not knowing it was out, had a run-in with the critics in New York. They told him he was crazy – it was the worst Hitchcock film ever made.

He called us up in the studio and I thought we were all going too get fired – I thought the studio was going to get burned down. And he ordered that scene be put back, so I had to call everyone back in again and redo the whole damn thing.” –Herbert Coleman (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

The early reveal of the plot’s ‘big secret’ has been the topic of debate, but this isn’t the most interesting aspect of this beautifully layered film. Actually, Vertigo is so rich in its thematic content that putting one’s hand on the ‘most interesting aspect’ of the film would be nearly impossible (and completely arguable). Of course, the film’s merits were not evident to everyone at the time. To the studio suits, the film was simply an incredibly convoluted murder mystery. Of course, sophisticated audiences know that the film is so much more than this.

The production itself wasn’t entirely pleasant and there were a number of reasons for this. Alfred Hitchcock was never completely happy with Kim Novak, but this probably had much more to do with his personal temperament than with any disappointment with Novak’s performance. Disappointment coupled with an extreme dislike of confrontation colored his opinions. Alfred Hitchcock had originally cast someone else in the dual roles of Madeline and Judy.

“Do you know that I had Vera Miles in mind for Vertigo, and we had done the whole wardrobe and the final tests with her? …Paramount was perfectly willing to have her, but she became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that I lost interest; I couldn’t get the rhythm going with her again.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

7354

Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t happy about having spent money on costumes and production design that he would be unable to use. He also knew that he would have to alter his vision in order to continue with the project. However, one could certainly argue that Novak is a more appropriate casting choice, and that this stroke of bad luck was actually fortune smiling upon him. Of course, he may have never realized this.

Unused Portrait of Carlotta based on  Vera Miles.

Novak was Paramount’s first choice. Some scholars even theorize that Hitchcock was already having second thoughts about casting Miles in the role before the actress became pregnant. This could very well be the case. Kim Novak was under contract to Columbia at the time. This meant asking for a loan-out. Since none of the suits in Hollywood were crazy about the script, her loan-out was approved grudgingly (and with the stipulation that James Stewart would do a film for Columbia).

“I was under contract to Columbia. Harry Cohn called me in one day and said, ‘I’m loaning you out. It’s a lousy script but it’s a great director. You’re going to go over to Paramount.’ I can’t remember what I was shooting just before, but anyway that’s how it came about.

 You had no choice in the matter. I wasn’t shown the script or anything. It’s their deal. I had no idea what Harry Cohn was paid for making that deal. I think it was maybe a trade, because then Jimmy Stewart did a movie for Columbia. However they worked it out, I know I was still making $750 a week and walking to work. And I had to walk to Paramount which was further [away]…” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

When Novak finished reading the script, she was pleasantly surprised.

“…I identified with [the script] right away. I’ve never liked commercial movies, really; I’ve always liked strange movies [laughs]. But to me, that’s just the kind of movie I liked seeing, being part of. Something a little more involved. I like things where you have to work for it, you know what I mean? I like the way an audience has to be pulled in. If I’m going to do something, I would like someone to participate by having to work to try to figure out what’s going on in my mind. What am I thinking? And of course, that’s what Alfred Hitchcock does. He brings you, as an audience, into wanting to get into the characters. His characters are so deep and profound, there are so many layers. That’s what I really loved about it. I loved it because it was expressing exactly what I was living at Columbia Pictures, at the studio.” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

Life had prepared Novak for her participation in Vertigo. Galvin Elster’s treatment of Madeline, and Scotties treatment of Judy mirrored Cohn’s treatment of Novak.

“Of course, in a way, that was how Hollywood treated its women in those days. I could really identify with Judy, being pushed and pulled this way and that, being told what dresses to wear, how to walk, how to behave. I think there was a little edge in my performance that I was trying to suggest that I would not allow myself to be pushed beyond a certain point – that I was there, I was me, I insisted on myself.”-Kim Novak (to Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)

The conflict with Novak has been blown out of proportion, and most of it concerned the incredible costumes that were designed for the character of Madeline.

“…Before shooting started, he sent me over to Edith Head, who showed me a set of drawings. When I saw them, the very first thing I said was, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t wear black shoes.’ When she said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants you to wear these shoes,’ I said, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t mind.’ I didn’t think it would matter to him what kind of shoes I wore. I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors. The two things he wanted the most were those shoes and that gray suit. When Edith Head showed me that gray suit, I said, “Oh, my God, that looks like it would be very hard to act in. It’s very confining.’ Then, when we had the first fitting of the dress, it was even worse and I said, ‘This is so restrictive.’ She said, ‘Well, maybe you’d better talk to Alfred Hitchcock about this…’

…I went in and he said, ‘I understand you don’t like these black shoes.’ He asked me why and I said, ‘I tell you, black shoes always sort of make me feel I’m pulled down. I’ve always felt that your feet should be the same as the top of your head, so that you’re connected. Wearing the black shoes would make me feel as if I were disconnected.’ He heard me out. And then he said, ‘Fine. When you play the role of Judy, you will not have to wear black shoes. When you are playing Madeleine, you will wear them.’ When he put it like that — after all, he’s the director – I said, ‘Okay…’

…I really wanted the chance to express myself and he allowed me that chance. It felt okay because he had heard me out. He felt my reasons weren’t good enough, they weren’t right. I just wanted to be heard as far as what I felt. So, I thought, ‘I’ll live with the grey suit.’ I also thought, ‘I’m going to use this. I can make this work for me. Because it bothers me, I’ll use it and it can help me feel like I’m having to be Madeleine, that I’m being forced to be her. I’ll have it as my energy to play against.’ It worked. That suit and those shoes were a blessing. I was constantly reminded that I was not being myself, which made it right for Madeleine. When I went out of Alfred Hitchcock’s office, I remember his wonderful smile when he said, ‘I’m so glad we had this talk.’ I think he saw that this was going to be good. He didn’t say to me, ‘Now use that,’ he allowed me to arrive at that myself.” -Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)

Edith Head (who had designed the costumes) remembered the conflict, and wrote about it in her autobiography, Edith Head’s Hollywood.

“…I remember [Novak] saying that she would wear any color except gray, and she must have thought that would give me full rein. Either she hadn’t read the script or she had and wanted me to think she hadn’t. I explained to her that Hitch paints a picture in his films, that color is as important to him as it is to any artist…

As soon as she left I was on the phone to Hitch, asking if that damn suit had to be gray and he explained to me the simple gray suit and plain hairstyle were very important and represented the character’s view of herself in the first half of the film. The character would go through a psychological change in the second half of the film and would then wear more colorful clothes to reflect the change. … ‘Handle it, Edith,’ I remember him saying. ‘I don’t care what she wears as long as it’s a gray suit.’

When Kim came in for our next session, I was completely prepared. I had several swatches of gray fabric in various shades, textures, and weights. Before she had the opportunity to complain, I showed her the sketch and the fabrics and suggested that she choose the fabric she thought would be best on her. She immediately had a positive feeling and felt that we were designing together. Of course, I knew that any of the fabrics would work well for the suit silhouette I had designed, so I didn’t care which one she chose.” -Edith Head (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

ss5

Hitchcock seemed to remember the event during his interview with François Truffaut, but he didn’t go into as much detail.

“Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with. You know, I don’t like to argue with a performer on the set; there’s no reason to bring the electricians in on our troubles. I went to Kim Novak’s dressing room and told her about the dresses and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the overall visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Madeline’s gray suit may have annoyed Novak, but the actress felt differently about Judy’s wardrobe.

“When I played Judy, I never wore a bra. It killed me having to wear a bra as Madeleine but you had to because they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you suddenly were not ‘in position.’ They made that suit very stiff. You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect. But, oh that was so perfect. That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role. It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again. I just felt natural. I had on my own beige shoes and that felt good. Hitchcock said, ‘Does that feel better?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, thank you so much.’ But then, I had to play ‘Madeleine’ again when Judy had to be made over again by Scottie into what she didn’t want to be. I could use that, again, totally for me, not just being made over into Madeleine but into Madeleine who wore that ghastly gray suit. The clothes alone were so perfect; they were everything I could want as an actress.” -Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)

Hitchcock was also probably also annoyed that the actress delayed the production.

“Kim Novak, who had already delayed production with a summer European vacation, now refused to show up for work on August thirtieth. She was holding out for more money – not from Hitchcock, but from Colombia, her home studio. Columbia immediately put her on suspension. The stakes were high – if the gamble by Novak and her agents didn’t work, she would lose both Vertigo and Bell, Book, and Candle with Stewart.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

This isn’t a stunt that would have appealed to Alfred Hitchcock. One of the reasons for his meticulous planning was to avoid inconveniences. Novak’s stunt likely worried the director a great deal. However, if Hitchcock was annoyed at Novak, he certainly never took it out on the actress during production. They simply did not associate with one another as friends.

“…I don’t know if he ever liked me. I never sat down with him for dinner or tea or anything, except one cast dinner, and I was late to that. It wasn’t my fault, but I think he thought I had delayed to make a star entrance, and he held that against me. During the shooting, he never really told me what he was thinking.” -Kim Novak (to Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)

The working relationship between Novak and Hitchcock was not dissimilar from the director’s approach with other actors.

“He really gave very, very little direction for your interpretation. He was extremely precise on rhythm and exactly where you moved because of his camera moves. But he really allowed you a lot of freedom as far as your reactions to whatever he set up for you. He wanted that fresh and real…

…He [said], ‘My dear, my dear, I hired you and that’s why I want you to do it. Just do what you feel, and I’ll tell you if it’s not right.’ I wanted to discuss it, but in retrospect I’m kind of glad because again, that was the sort of freedom. I’d go to Jimmy Stewart – because of my insecurity, I’m so insecure all the time – knock on his dressing room door. ‘Come on in!’ I’d say, ‘You know, I really wanted to talk to Mr. Hitchcock about this.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t worry. If he hired you, he likes what you’re bringing to the character; it’s all right.’ Hearing it from him made me feel good, because he is just the most amazing man I’ve ever known…” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

It has been written that Alfred Hitchcock tortured Kim Novak by shooting an exorbitant amount of takes. This particular myth is rather ridiculous and completely untrue.

“…As mentioned earlier, a double had done the jump into the real bay some months earlier; Novak was obliged only to float in the tank, waiting for Stewart to save her, for four takes (approximately forty minutes). The first take was ruined because Stewart’s hair looked wrong; in the next, he paused too long on the dive; the third didn’t match the previously shot footage of Scottie lifting her out. And in the fourth take, only camera A ran (there were two cameras covering this shot – one shooting from the top of the dock, looking at Madeline floating in the water, while the second covered Scottie diving into the water). Between the two cameras, the four takes were sufficient to cut together the scene, and Novak returned safely to dry land.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

In a 1996 interview, Novak discussed her difficulty shooting the scene.

“…I don’t know how to swim. And I’m very claustrophobic about not being able to breathe, catch my breath. He had me stand in the water and come up. It was in a tank, but still. There was someone under there, but I still had to put my face underwater. That was the hardest part of the movie for me and if that’s as hard as it gets, hell, that’s not bad.” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

The fact of the matter is that four takes is an extremely reasonable number for such a scene. One might even say that is a very considerate number.

Luckily, most of the production challenges were creative in nature. These were challenges that Hitchcock relished. The famous ‘Vertigo effect’ is one case in point. The director had wanted the effect in earlier films, but wasn’t able to achieve it until Vertigo.

Vertigo 6 Stairs

“I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk and I had the sensation that everything was going far away from me. I tried to get that into Rebecca, but they couldn’t do it. The viewpoint must be fixed, you see, wile the perspective is changed as it stretches lengthwise. I thought about the problem for fifteen years. By the time we got to Vertigo, we solved it by using the dolly and zoom simultaneously. I asked how much it would cost, and they told me it would cost fifty thousand dollars. When I asked why, they said, ‘Because to put the camera at the top of the stairs, we have to have a big apparatus to lift it, counterweight it, and hold it up in space.’ I said, ‘There are no characters in this scene; it’s simply a viewpoint. Why can’t we make a miniature of the stairway and lay it on its side, then take our shot by pulling away from it? We can use a tracking shot and a zoom flat on the ground.’ So that’s the way we did it, and it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Today the effect is part of the cinematic language. In Vertigo, the effect was not simply a gimmick. It allowed audiences to identify with Scottie. A lot of modern filmmakers forget that these effects should always have a purpose and attempt to elicit an emotional reaction in the audience. This is what Alfred Hitchcock did best.

ss10

The scene where Judy is transformed back into Madeline in the hotel room is a perfect example of Hitchcock’s use of the visual to elicit an emotional reaction. This scene is almost visual poetry.

“Now, as soon as she comes out, he sees a ghost–he sees the other woman. That’s why I played her in a green light. You see, in the earlier part–which is purely in the mind of Stewart–when he is watching this girl go from place to place, when she is really faking, behaving like a woman of the past — in order to get this slightly subtle quality of a dreamlike nature although it was bright sunshine, I shot the film through a fog filter and I got a green effect — fog over bright sunshine. That’s why, when she comes out of the bathroom, I played her in the green light. That’s why I chose the Empire Hotel in Post Street — because it had a green neon sign outside the window. I wanted to establish that green light flashing all the time. So that when we need it, we’ve got it. I slid the soft, fog lens over, and as she came forward, for a moment he got the image of the past. Then as her face came up to him, I slipped the soft effect away, and he came back to reality. She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered — until he saw the locket — and then he knew he had been tricked.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

ss23

“‘As I remember, it was all process. We had them on a turntable. The rest was on a transparency,’ [Henry] Bumstead recalls. ‘The turntable can make you dizzy though.’ The footage film in San Juan Bautista faded into a slow pan of Judy’s hotel room to make the final process shot that was projected behind Stewart and Novak; the background resolved into a solid neon green as the shot ended. The impression thus created was that the camera was moving full circle around the lovers, when in reality it was the rear projection and the actors who were turning. The camera’s movement is limited to a gentle track backward, then forward once again.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

The result is quite effective. Scottie not only prefers illusion to reality, he embraces illusion passionately. It seems that every element of the film adds richness and subtext to these themes.

ss16

When one looks at the Saul Bass credit sequence (complete with animation designs by John Whitney), it is impossible not to think about the obsessive nature of Scottie’s character and the spirals inherent throughout Vertigo. The visual design of Vertigo is as close to perfect as one could ever imagine. For easy illustration, just look at the spiral motif in the film. They are everywhere!

The Golden Ratio

Spirals are not limited to the most obvious examples of Madeline and Carlotta’s hairstyles, the bouquet of flowers, and the tower’s staircase. They are even evident in many of Hitchcock’s shot compositions (since many shots in Vertigo owe a debt to the golden ratio). Fibonacci would be proud! The structure of the story itself is a spiral. Scottie falls in love with a woman (who is actually another man’s construct) and loses her to death. He then falls in love with the same woman (turning her into this same construct) and once again loses her to death. People who complain about the film’s ending fail to understand the film itself. The abrupt nature of the ending is essential to the very design of the film!

ss17

Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score for the film also seems to have a spiraling sound and this contributes to the film’s effect on its audience. Of course, Herrmann never really held the film in high regard.

“I felt Vertigo made one big mistake. They should have never made it in San Francisco -and not with Jimmy Stewart. I don’t think he was right for the part. I don’t believe that he would be that wild about any woman. It should have had an actor like Charles Boyer, or that kind. It should have been left in New Orleans, or in a hot, sultry climate. When I wrote the picture, I thought of that. When I do a film, if I don’t like it, I go back to the original.” -Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)

However, Herrmann’s opinions are debatable. The San Francisco location seems to this reviewer preferable to New Orleans. New Orleans is perhaps a more obvious location, but San Francisco offers a haunting aura to the film that avoids the cliché described by Herrmann. What better setting could there be for an acrophobic character than San Francisco?

screenshot

Of course, the film’s merits were not always appreciated. The film was not an overwhelming critical or commercial success. Critical opinion seemed to cross the entire spectrum. A few critics raved about the film, other reviews were mixed with qualified praise, and some were rather hostile.

Bosley Crowther wrote an overwhelmingly positive review for the New York Times.

“You might say that Alfred Hitchcock’s latest mystery melodrama, Vertigo is all about how a dizzy fellow chases after a dizzy dame, the fellow being a ex-detective; and the dame being — well, you guess. That is as fair a thumbnail digest as we can hastily contrive to give you a gist of this picture without giving the secret away. And, believe us, that secret is so clever, even though it is devilishly far-fetched, that we wouldn’t want to risk at all disturbing your inevitable enjoyment of the film.

If that recommendation is sufficient, read no further. Vertigo opened yesterday at the Capitol…

… What is this thing that invades the moody person of his loved one, the wife of another man? And how can he free her from this demon — and from her husband?
That’s all we will tell you! Now —

Second hint: This fascinating mystery is based upon a tale written by the same fellows, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote the story from which was taken that excellent French mystery, “Diabolique.” That film, if you remember, told of a terribly devious plot to simulate a murder that didn’t happen.

There! No more hints! Coming or not?

What more’s to say? Well, nothing, except that Vertigo is performed in the manner expected of all performers in Hitchcock films. Mr. Stewart, as usual, manages to act awfully tense in a casual way, and Miss Novak is really quite amazing in — well, here is a bit of a hint — dual roles. Tom Helmore is sleek as the husband and Barbara Bel Geddes is sweet as the nice girl who loves the detective and has to watch him drifting away.” –Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May, 29 1958)

The London Times also published a review that is quite positive, but terribly condescending. It underestimates the film completely and even goes as far as to complain about James Stewart and Kim Novak in their respective roles.

Vertigo, which is now at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, is not an important film or even major Hitchcock, but it entertains and is admirably photographed.

For the ingenuity of the story, the authors of the novel ‘D’Entre les Morts,’ on which the film is based, must have a considerable share of the credit; and ingenious, over-ingenious, as some may think. Vertigo certainly is…

… It would not be fair to say more, but the glimpse and feel of the supernatural are resolved at the end into the mechanics of crime, far-fetched though these may be. Mr. Stewart is at his best in his light, offhand moments with the commercial artist Midge (Miss Barbara Bel Geddes), who, with humorous resignation, dotes on him — nervous breakdowns and long, passionate kisses do not suit his casual style. Mr. Hitchcock tries hard to make Miss Novak act and, at moments, succeeds.” –Staff Writer (The Times, April 11, 1958)

Variety’s review was also rather mixed, offering only qualified praise.

Vertigo is prime though uneven Hitchcock and with the potent marquee combination of James Stewart and Kim Novak should prove to be a highly profitable enterprise at the box-office.

Stewart, on camera almost constantly throughout the film’s 126 minutes, comes through with a startlingly fine performance as the lawyer-cop who suffers from acrophobia–that is, vertigo or dizziness in high places.

Miss Novak, shop girl who involves Stewart in what turns out to be a clear case of murder, is interesting under Hitchcock’s direction and nearer an actress than she was in either Pal Joey or Jeanne Eagles.

Unbilled, but certainly a prime factor in whatever success film may have, is the city of San Francisco, which has never been photographed so extensively and in such exquisite color as Robert Burks and his crew have here achieved.

Through all of this runs Hitchcock’s directorial hand, cutting, angling and gimmicking with mastery.

Unfortunately, even that mastery is not enough to overcome one major fault, for the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long. This may be because: (1) Hitchcock became overly enamored with the vertiginous beauty of Frisco; or (2) the Alec Coppel-Samuel Taylor screenplay (from the novel ‘D’entre Les Morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) just takes too long to get off the ground.

Film opens with a rackling scene in which Stewart’s acrophobia is explained: he hangs from top of a building in midst of chasing a robber over rooftops and watches a police buddy plunge to his death.

But for the next hour the action is mainly psychic…Film’s last minute, in which Stewart fights off acrophobia to drag Miss Novak to top of bell tower, finds she still loves him and then sees her totter and fall to her death through mortal fright of an approaching nun, is a spectacular scene, gorgeously conceived.

But by then more than two hours have gone by, and it’s questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery…

…Frisco location scenes – whether of Nob Hill, interior of Ernie’s restaurant, Land’s End, downtown, Muir Woods, Mission Dolores or San Juan Bautista – are absolutely authentic and breathtaking. But these also tend to intrude on story line too heavily, giving a travelogueish effect at times.

Despite this defect, Vertigo looks like a winner at the box-office as solid entertainment in the Hitchcock tradition.” –Variety (May 14, 1958)

Of course, there were also critics that seemed to miss the point entirely. These individuals wrote scathing reviews of the film. The tone of these diatribes can be summed up in a single sentence from a review printed in Time magazine.

“The old master, now a slave to television, has turned out another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares.” -Time (June 16, 1958)

In a 2014 interview, Kim Novak remembered these reviews the most.

“Those things hurt… If I could go back now I would probably not read the reviews. But it’s hard not to because you want to improve. You feel like, well, they must know. Unfortunately, they don’t always know. History has proven they’re not right necessarily.” –Kim Novak (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014)

ss4

History has certainly been kind to Vertigo. Robin Wood’s 1965 essay about the film offers concrete proof that opinion can evolve over time.

Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock’s films the one nearest to perfection. Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form: it is a perfect organism.” – Robin Wood (Hitchcock’s Films, 1965)

  Donald Spoto was also generous in his praise for Vertigo, calling it “Alfred Hitchcock’s great masterpiece” in his book of essays about the director’s films.

“…But however much Vertigo indicts the tragic and the deadly, it remains a work of authentic beauty and grandeur, a film of astonishing purity and formal perfection in every element. Each line of dialogue, each color, each piece of decoration, each article of wardrobe, each music cue, camera angle and gesture, each glance – everything in this motion picture has an organic relationship contributing to the whole. Never has there been presented so beguilingly the struggle between constant yearning for the ideal and the necessity of living in a world that is far from ideal, with people who are one and all frail and imperfect. Vertigo is a work of uncanny maturity, authorial honesty and spiritual insight, and if its characters are indeed doomed to a tragic end – not one of them able to reach fulfillment of an earthly love – that is not due to Hitchcock’s contempt. It is, in the final analysis, a work of unsentimental yet profound compassion, and a statement of transcendent faith in what cannot be and yet what must, somewhere be true.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Perhaps the most important documented example of the film’s high esteem is the expensive restoration effort that Vertigo was given by James C Katz and Robert A. Harris. When this beautiful restoration was released theatrically in 1996, critics called the film a masterpiece. One such example is Janet Maslin’s review for the New York Times.

“The revival event of the season is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliantly schematic, endlessly fascinating Vertigo. Newly restored to its rich, deep hues by Robert A. Harris (who also restored Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus), this prescient 1958 spellbinder can now be admired as the deepest, darkest masterpiece of Hitchcock’s career…

…Nowhere else did Hitchcock’s perfectionism yield such feverish results, in an eerily perverse exploration of this director’s obsessive themes…

…With less playfulness and much more overt libido than other Hitchcock classics, Vertigo was always anomalous. And it has flaws that actually work to its advantage. Much of Kim Novak’s artificiality may have been unintended, but it suits the plot devilishly and works in stark contrast to Stewart’s great, entranced performance as a man who finds himself falling in every sense. And the appeal of Vertigo in the 1950’s was limited by the film’s perverse, disturbing power. That only makes better sense of it today.” –Janet Maslin (New York Times, October 4, 1996)

Newsweek’s David Ansen was equally impressed.

“When it was released in 1958, few people considered Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock’s best. Other Hitch movies were tauter, scarier, more on-the-surface fun. Vertigo needed time for the audience to rise to its darkly rapturous level. This month it reopens in a glorious 70mm print that’s been painstakingly restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. Now you can see Hitchcock’s greatest, most personal (and kinkiest) movie afresh, with a new digitalized soundtrack that brings Bernard Herrmann’s spiraling, haunted, ‘Tristan and Isolde’-infected score to the fore.

Why is this movie Hitchcock’s masterpiece? Because no movie plunges us more deeply into the dizzying heart of erotic obsession. Because in Jimmy Stewart’s fetishtic pursuit of mystery woman Kim Novak–whom he transforms into the image of the dead woman he loved–Hitchcock created the cinema’s most indelible metaphor for the objectification of desire. Because Stewart, playing a man free-falling into love, responds with a performance so harrowing in its ferocity it must have surprised even himself. Because Novak, that great slinky cat, imbues her double role with a mesmerizing poignance. Because the impeccable, dreamlike images of this ghostly Liebestod are so eerily beautiful they stay in your head forever. And because the older you get, and the m ore times you see it, the more strange, chillingly romantic thriller pierces your heart.” -David Ansen (Newsweek, October 20, 1996)

Roger Ebert also praised the film in the Chicago Sun-Times.

‘Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?’

This cry from a wounded heart comes at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo,’ and by the time it comes we are completely in sympathy. A man has fallen in love with a woman who does not exist, and now he cries out harshly against the real woman who impersonated her. But there is so much more to it than that. The real woman has fallen in love with him. In tricking him, she tricked herself. And the man, by preferring his dream to the woman standing before him, has lost both…

Vertigo (1958), which is one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made, is the most confessional, dealing directly with the themes that controlled his art. It is *about* how Hitchcock used, feared and tried to control women. He is represented by Scottie (James Stewart), a man with physical and mental weaknesses (back problems, fear of heights), who falls obsessively in love with the image of a woman–and not any woman, but the quintessential Hitchcock woman. When he cannot have her, he finds another woman and tries to mold her, dress her, train her, change her makeup and her hair, until she looks like the woman he desires. He cares nothing about the clay he is shaping; he will gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams…

…Alfred Hitchcock took universal emotions, like fear, guilt and lust, placed them in ordinary characters, and developed them in images more than in words. His most frequent character, an innocent man wrongly accused, inspired much deeper identification than the superficial supermen in today’s action movies.

He was a great visual stylist in two ways: He used obvious images and surrounded them with a subtle context. Consider the obvious ways he suggests James Stewart’s vertigo. An opening shot shows him teetering on a ladder, looking down at a street below. Flashbacks show why he left the police force. A bell tower at a mission terrifies him, and Hitchcock creates a famous shot to show his point of view: Using a model of the inside of the tower, and zooming the lens in while at the same time physically pulling the camera back, Hitchcock shows the walls approaching and receding at the same time; the space has the logic of a nightmare. But then notice less obvious ways that the movie sneaks in the concept of falling, as when Scottie drives down San Francisco’s hills, but never up. And note how truly he “falls” in love.

There is another element, rarely commented on, that makes Vertigo a great film. From the moment we are let in on the secret, the movie is equally about Judy: her pain, her loss, the trap she’s in. Hitchcock so cleverly manipulates the story that when the two characters climb up that mission tower, we identify with both of them, and fear for both of them, and in a way Judy is less guilty than Scottie.

The danger is to see Judy, played by Novak, as an object in the same way that Scottie sees her. She is in fact one of the most sympathetic female characters in all of Hitchcock… And Novak, criticized at the time for playing the character too stiffly, has made the correct acting choices: Ask yourself how you would move and speak if you were in unbearable pain, and then look again at Judy.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 13, 1996)

In 2012 critics and filmmakers would vote Vertigo as the #1 ‘Greatest Film of all Time’ in Sight and Sound‘s famous poll. 191 respected critics voted for the film, and 31 directors did likewise. This is perhaps the most obvious illustration of Vertigo’s growing appeal. The film is a rich and rewarding experience that changes over multiple viewings.

ss7

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" page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (you can see the artwork on the top of this article).

menu1

menu2

menu3

menu4

menu5

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

ss13

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080p transfer of the 1996 restoration print is impressive, but not perfect. Detail is wonderful and reveals textures and lines that weren’t as clearly defined on other home video releases. Clarity is wonderful, with only occasional digressions into slight softness. There is a fine layer of film grain, but this is a good thing. There aren’t any digital anomalies to annoy the viewer. Colors are quite wonderfully rendered (with only a few minor exceptions), and the picture exhibits appropriate contrast. There are moments when blacks feel slightly faded, but this never becomes a distraction. Any complaints one might have tend to be overwhelmed by the transfer’s more positive attributes.

7345

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix wins the award for best soundtrack in Universal’s catalogue of Hitchcock films. The mix was rather controversial upon the release of the film’s wonderful restoration in 1996. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz were forced to redo much of the soundtrack (based upon Alfred Hitchcock’s meticulous notes). Purists were quite upset. It is a marvelous job. Purists should be pleased to find that Universal has also included the films original mono track. The complaint here might be that it is not lossless. I suppose that one cannot have everything. It is certainly wonderful to see it included here in some form.

ss22

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

If Universal had included the wonderful restoration commentary with Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, this would be a near perfect collection of supplements. In its place, a featurette about the Lew Wasserman era of Universal is included. It does not amount to much. Fans will want to hold on to their DVD discs for this missing commentary track.

Feature Length Commentary by William Friedkin

One would probably rather have the Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz commentary included on this disc instead of this one. The track included various Vertigo participants (including Samuel Taylor) and was quite interesting. Friedkin offers an interesting enough track, but it is mostly a blow-by-blow of what is happening onscreen. One wonders why they asked him to provide a track for the film in the first place. He has made a few wonderful films, but he isn’t an expert on Vertigo. One might prefer Dan Auiler (who quite literally wrote the book on the making of Vertigo).

Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece – (SD) – (29:19)

This ‘original’ American Movie Classic documentary (produced when AMC actually aired classic movies) is narrated by Roddy McDowall and features a number of interviews with Vertigo participants (including Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Herbert Coleman, and Patricia Hitchcock, and others). A significant portion of the documentary is dedicated to the wonderful 1996 restoration. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz discuss (in reasonably comprehensive detail) what was involved in restoring this great classic.

It is a wonderful documentary that is somewhat different to the documentaries on most of Universal’s Hitchcock releases (which were directed by Laurent Bouzereau). Some of the other documentaries were slightly more comprehensive (others weren’t). It is very nice to see this documentary included here. It is one of the two best supplements on this disc.

Partners in Crime: Hitchcock’s Collaborators (54:49) – (SD) –

This documentary has four chapters. These chapters include; Saul Bass: Title Champ, Edith Head: Dressing the Master’s Movies, Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock’s Maestro, and Alma: The Master’s Muse. Each of these chapters is informative and entertaining. They are exceptional additions to this disc.

Foreign Censorship Ending – (SD) – (2:09) –

This is an ending that was tagged on to the film for its foreign release, and was probably never intended to be the film’s proper ending (though it was included in the shooting script). It is incredibly interesting and one of the most welcome additions to the disc.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (SD) – (14:17)-

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films.

100 Years of Universal Lew Wasserman Era – (HD) – (9:00) –

This featurette about Universal Studios during Lew Wasserman’s reign is an appropriate extra for a Hitchcock film (and even includes a clip of Alfred Hitchcock promoting the Universal tour). It certainly isn’t the best supplement here, but it is welcome.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:30) –

The ‘Original’ Theatrical Trailer was created with the intention of making the audience understand the meaning of the film’s title, while also exploiting the more sensational aspects of the film. It is an interesting artifact and fans should be grateful to have it included here.

Restoration Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (1:23) –

The 1996 Restoration Re-release trailer is included and is a welcome addition to the disc.

The Vertigo Archives – (SD)

‘The Vertigo Archives’ is essentially am extensive photo gallery that includes production photographs, stills, posters, advertisements, and production design drawings. Many of these are quite interesting.

ss26

Final Words:

Vertigo is a brilliant work that demands to be revisited. Universal’s transfer of the film’s 1996 restoration is not perfect, but it is quite good and improves upon previous releases. Do yourself a favor and take the plunge.

3529

Source Materials:

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (D’entre les morts)

Review (The Times, April 11, 1958)

Review (Variety, May 14, 1958)

Review by Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May, 29 1958)

Review (Time, June 16, 1958)

Variety (July 30, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Robin Wood (Hitchcock’s Films, 1965)

Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Kim Novak (Interview with Henry Sheean, 1996)

Review by Janet Maslin (New York Times, October 4, 1996)

Review by Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 13, 1996)

Review by David Ansen (Newsweek, October 20, 1996)

Kim Novak (Interview with Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)

Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

Charles Barr (Vertigo: BFI Film Classics)

Kim Novak (Larry King Live, January 5, 2004)

Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)

Kim Novak (Save Hitchcock, August 31, 2012)

Kim Novak (Washington Post)

Kim Novak (Daily Mail, September, 2013)

Kim Novak (Orlando Sentinel, September 4, 2013)

Kim Novak (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014)

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Rear Window

cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region Free

Length: 1:52:32

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

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

Alternate Audio: DTS French Mono, DTS Spanish Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.66:1

Bitrate: 31.99 Mbps

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

ss1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ss3

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

collection page

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

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

menu1

menu2

menu3

menu04

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

8

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

11

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

13

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Rear Window Ethics – (SD) – (55:10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masters of Cinema – (SD) – (33:39)

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (HD) –

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

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

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

Production Photographs – (SD) –

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

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

3

Source Material:

Cornell Woolrich (It Had To Be Murder)

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

Review by François Truffaut (1954)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation, Channel 28, 1969)

Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

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

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

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

Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

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

Spine # 5

cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 08/Apr/ 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:40:02

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: Uncompressed French Mono

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 2.34:1

Bitrate: 38.83 Mbps

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

ss3

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

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

hitch7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

400 bts2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

400 bts1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ss12

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

ss14

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

ss7

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

ss8

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Brian Stonehill

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

Audio Commentary by Robert Lachenay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (3:47)

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

ss16

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

ss10

Additional Note:

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

The Criterion Collection’s The 400 Blows  page:

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

Blu-ray Review: Rope

Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 04/Jun/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:20:48

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.35:1

Bitrate: 32 Mbps

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

ss1

“…I abandoned pure cinema in an effort to make the stage play mobile. With a flowing camera, the film played in its own time. There were no dissolves [and] no time-lapses in it. It was continuous action and I thought it also ought to have a continuous flow of camera narrative as well. I think it was an error technically, because one abandoned pure cinema for it. But when you take a stage play in one room, it is very hard to cut it up.” –Alfred Hitchcock

One cannot blame Alfred Hitchcock for feeling experimental after being under contract to David O. Selznick. The director had already established a production company with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures in anticipation of his emancipation from Selznick. Rope ended up being the first of two films made for Transatlantic before the company was dissolved.

In a Popular Photography article that was published in November of 1948, the director explains his reasoning behind shooting the film in long uninterrupted takes:

“A long time ago I said that I would like to film in two hours a fictional story that actually happens in two hours. I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses — a picture in which the camera never stops.

In Rope I got my wish. It was a picture unlike any other I’ve ever directed. True, I had experimented with a roving camera in isolated sequences in such films as Spellbound, Notorious, and The Paradine Case. But until Rope came along, I had been unable to give full rein to my notion that a camera could photograph one complete reel at a time, gobbling up 11 pages of dialogue on each shot, devouring action like a giant steam shovel.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

These uninterrupted takes are the focus of a lot of debate and is the primary focus of nearly everything that is written about the film (and for good reason). It was a first in cinema. An accomplished director was essentially risking his future success in order to advance his art and his understanding of cinema (even if he did not realize it). The production wouldn’t be an easy one. Even the subject matter was risky! The script needed special handling in order to get the unusual content past the censors.

To help him adapt Patrick Hamilton’s play into a usable screenplay (where the action is moved from London to New York City), the director chose his friend Hume Cronym. Changes were made from the original play. For example, the theatrical tickets that provided an essential clue in the play were omitted in favor of initials in a hat that does not fit Rupert’s head. Characters from the play were also omitted (or traded in for new characters) and names were changed. Once a treatment was written, Hitchcock was ready to work on the screenplay:

“Broadway playwright Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay, the first time a scenario was written without time lapses. Laurents’ scenes were unnumbered and there was almost no camera direction, merely indications of the changing camera position at major points throughout the story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Laurents would combine dialogue from the play with his own dialogue. His script handled the subtext of homosexuality extremely carefully in order to appease the censors. However, the censors would not be Hitchcock’s largest obstacle. His new method of shooting would require a set that would accommodate his huge Technicolor camera.

Set Drawing

Surprisingly, the apartment itself was the least of his worries. The New York skyline that can be seen from the apartment window also created challenges, and these challenges only stimulated the director’s excitement for the project.

…The most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama — an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs requiring 150 transformers.

On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue, the locale of the play. And since all the major action of Rope takes place in the living room of this apartment, with the spectators constantly viewing the background, it was impossible to use process shots or a backdrop. Both would have been too flat. We had to remember the core of the arc of view. So we had to employ the scale cyclorama and devise a “light organ” that not only would light the miniature and its panorama of buildings, but also could give us changing sky and cloud effects varying from sunset to dark — all seen from the apartment — to denote the passing of time…

…That electrician who sat high on a parallel behind the camera manipulating the light organ controlled the lighting of the miniature like an artist at a console. He could illuminate an entire building or just one window at a time. He could, at the exact and rehearsed line of dialogue which gave him his cue, flood the Manhattan skyline with light from 200 miniature neon signs. By the time the picture went from the setting of the sun in the first reel to the hour of total darkness in the final denouement, the man at the light organ had played a nocturnal Manhattan symphony in light…”  -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Some of the director’s lighting issues were solved by a surprising source:

“There was one rather knotty problem that Jimmy Stewart, recalling his experiences in the Air Force, helped us solve. In the final moments of the story when the body is discovered and the killers are trapped, the apartment living room is flooded at intervals by great pulsations of light from a huge neon “Storage” sign just outside the window. I wanted the effect to add dramatic tension, much like the increasing crescendos of an orchestra at the climax of a symphony.

But for a while our electrical experts were stumped. They knew that in order to get enough light into the room during the sign’s pulsations, huge arc lights would have to be hooked up on a special parallel with the actual sign – then synchronized. Then Stewart thought of the bomb release switch used in heavy bombers during the war. This switch controlled electrically the split second intervals during which bombs were dropped over the target. So we bought a bomb release at a war surplus store, adjusted it to synchronize the alternate flashing of the neon “Storage” sign with the opening and closing of these shutters on the three huge floodlights, and got exactly the effect we wanted.

Those 200 miniature neon signs in the New York skyline cyclorama helped me solve a little problem of my own. It’s traditional, with me at least, that I appear fleetingly in every one of my pictures. But Rope, with a cast of only nine people who never leave the apartment, looked like the end of the Hitchcock tradition. There was just no way that I could get into the act.

Then someone came up with a solution. The result? The Hitchcock countenance will appear in a neon ‘Reduco’ sign on the side of a miniature building!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hitchcock Posing with Rope's Clouds

Even the clouds that were seen through the window managed to create problems:

“Searching for what I demanded in a natural-seeming sky, I rejected the two routine methods of getting clouds. We could have painted them on the cyclorama, or we could have projected the clouds on the backdrop by means of painted lantern slides. But we did neither. I wanted the clouds to look like clouds even from ten feet away.

It was Fred Ahern, our production manager, who found the solution to the puzzle. Ahern came up with the perfect light-reflecting substance — spun glass. (Cotton wouldn’t do because it soaks up and deadens light.) Five hundred pounds of spun glass were woven by scenic artists into chicken wire molds. Then actual clouds were photographed in all kinds of weather. We discovered that clouds are never the same even when the weather is constant, and it makes no difference what shape they are. Finally we decided on the cumulus or storm cloud, because it is white and fleecy before it turns gray and formidable. Every possible shaped cloud was created out of spun glass: wispy and full; fragile and menacing, circular and long.

Rope shows eight complete cloud changes during its nine reels. (The spun glass clouds were hung on standards and on overhead wires behind the buildings in the cyclorama – then slightly varied after each reel.) As a final check on our meteorology, we asked Dr. Dinsmore Alter of the famed Griffith Observatory for his opinion…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Set Drawing full article

The set for the apartment itself was so unusual that Look’s review of the film included a diagram of the apartment set:

“Naturally, in rolling a camera back and forth in a three-room apartment for 10 minutes without a halt (from living room to kitchen and back) we had to have a collapsible apartment. Actually, the basic element was the series of wild walls. (“Wild” is a term used to designate moveable or detachable flats.) In Rope the walls were quite literally wild. They rolled on overhead tracks heavily greased with Vaseline to soundproof the skids. A separate crew stood by to roll each wall at a given cue, admitting the camera when the actors had gone through the door. When the players returned in the same shot, the wall closed and the Technicolor camera dollied back to pick up a new angle during the split second needed to make the room solid again.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Obviously, the shooting required an unbelievable amount of planning. There were many technical considerations to consider before production could commence. Hitchcock usually preferred the 50mm lens, but Rope required a different approach:

“Joe Valentine and I decided that one lens — a 35 mm — would give us all the coverage we needed, since it would be impossible to change lenses because of the continuous camera movement. Paul Hill, our Technicolor consultant, solved the problem of parallax, successfully modifying the camera for close-ups so that we could move in close enough to shoot the inside of a man’s hat and the label on a hatband. And instead of following the camera with a mike boom, which would have created an insurmountable problem, we decided that the simplest solution was not to follow it. Instead, we set up four separate booms and two additional microphones up high. Operated by six sound men, these mikes picked up dialogue anywhere the camera wandered within the three-room apartment.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Despite this new method of recording the dialogue, getting usable sound was one of the more difficult aspects of the production. James Stewart elaborated about the sound issues in an interview with Donald Spoto:

“We had a lot of rehearsal, but the noise of the moving walls was a problem, and so we had to do the whole thing over again for sound, with just the microphones, like a radio play. The dialogue track was then added later.” –James Stewart (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)

In addition to the dialogue, Hitchcock was able to achieve an incredibly realistic ambience that featured the life of New York’s street life in the distance. This also posed a challenge for the director:

“I made them put a microphone six stories high and I gathered a group of people below on the sidewalk and had them talk about the shots. As for the police siren, they told me they had one in the sound library. I asked them, ‘How are you going to give the impression of distance?’ and they answered, ‘We’ll make it soft at first, and then we’ll bring it up loud.” But, I didn’t want it done that way. I made them get an ambulance with a siren. We placed the microphone at the studio gate and sent the ambulance two miles away and that’s the way we made the soundtrack.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Music was also handled in an unusual manner. David Buttolph was the unaccredited composer of music heard in the film’s opening and closing credits, but only diegetic music is heard throughout the rest of the film. Therefore, we only hear music when Philip (Farley Granger) is seen playing Poulenc’s Perpetual Motion on the piano. One might notice that the title of the piece of music is rather revealing. The camera and the characters are almost always in motion, as are the minds of the two murderers and their guests.

bts5

None of these challenges seem to compare to the obvious challenge of actually shooting the film. In order for all of these elements to come together, actors and crew members would have to do their jobs perfectly for ten minute stretches. This required an extended rehearsal period:

“Instead of reading the script through once or twice, the cast spent two weeks walking through the action from the beginning to the end, much like a stage play. Remember we weren’t shooting just a line at a time, nor shifting our camera setup after a one-minute take. There were ten to eleven pages of dialogue on each shot. Actually, for the camera rehearsals we used no stand-ins as such. The stars themselves acted as puppets for the camera. After the camera movement rehearsals there were intensive dress rehearsals, when everyone’s job, from script supervisor to prop man, was coordinated… The maximum number of takes on any single reel was six and the minimum was three.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

The rehearsals were apparently not a cure all for human imperfection because Hitchcock was given a glimpse of what he was up against in the very first take:

“…I was so scared that something would go wrong that I couldn’t even look during the first take. For eight minutes of consecutive shooting everything went smoothly. Then the camera panned around as the two killers walked back toward the chest, and there, right in camera focus, was an electrician standing by the window! So the first take was ruined.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This isn’t surprising. The obstacles that the cast and crew faced seemed almost infinite. There were so many little things that could go wrong at any moment:

“…In the studio, the stage (actually a stage within a stage, made noiseless by constructing a special floor one and one-half inch above the regular one, soundproofed with layers of Celotex and carpet) was marked with numbered circles. These indicated where each specific camera stop had to be made, and when. Each camera movement — and there were as many as 30 separate ones — had its predetermined focus. Because of this the crew men operating the camera had to hit the floor markings exactly on cue and without deviations. The entire floor plan was laid out in foot squares so that in the event of retakes we could go back to the exact spot.

For the actual take the door markings were removed and plotted on a board. Holding the cue board the script supervisor signaled the camera crew on every movement during the 10-minute take. It was like one of those fabulous “Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance” triple plays. To cue each separate camera movement (and everything had to be done in utter silence) the script supervisor would check his cue board – then nod to a crew man on his left who held a long bamboo pointer. This crew man placed the end of the pointer on a predetermined spot on the floor. His action triggered Morris Rosen, the head grip, who dollied the camera to the new position, while the focus puller on the camera crane, watching his own cue sheet, simultaneously changed the focus on the camera lens…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

bts13

The camera wasn’t the only inanimate object that had to be in nearly constant motion in order to accommodate Hitchcock’s revolutionary new shooting method:

“Every piece of furniture on the stage — every table, chair, plate, dish, and drinking glass — had to be moved on cue just like the wooden chest. Once, while the characters in the play were eating a buffet supper, Joan Chandler, who played the feminine lead, had to put her wine glass down on a table. But the table was gone. Joan merely put the glass down where the table should have been, one of the crouching prop men (unseen by the camera, of course) raised his hand and Joan’s glass found a resting place in it. Another time an actor had to reach for a plate off the unseen table. Again a prop man moved in, handed the actor a plate, and the action went on. It really was uncanny.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

This particular challenge was especially difficult for Dick Hogan (the actor who played David):

“…This chest with the body inside of it was always in the center of the living room — so far as the audience is aware.

Yet, actually every time the camera crossed the room the chest had to be rolled off stage just in advance of the camera crane. (We couldn’t stop to make new camera setups.) Moving the chest was the assignment of the four prop men crouched on their hands and knees beneath the camera. Not only did they have to move the chest aside on cue but they also had to get it back into the scene again as the camera returned.

And all the time the young actor who played the strangled youth had to remain inside the chest! Since there were no time lapses or camera cuts in the usual scene, he was inside the chest for a full ten minutes, the shooting of 950 feet of film. After the third take, this actor began to get, well, a little tired. ‘I hope to God they get it on this take,’ he said fervently. ‘Those ten minutes seem like ten hours.’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hogan had it much easier than the rest of the cast. He only had to be in that trunk for one reel. The rest of the cast had to flawlessly say their lines and hit their marks for ten minutes with walls and furniture moving at random all around them. James Stewart was extremely uncomfortable with this new shooting. As a matter of fact, the process was so stressful that the actor was unable to sleep at night:

“Stewart, of course, claimed that Rope was the toughest job an actor ever had. And I agreed with him. He told me that he wasn’t sleeping nights. ‘What this means,’ Jimmy said, ‘is that if the rest of the cast is perfect and I fluff a line at, say 895 feet, it becomes the colossal fluff in screen history. The only way it can be reshot is to do the whole scene over again.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s exactly why I picked you for the lead.’

As it was, Stewart had to hang around the set 18 days before making a bona fide entrance for the rolling camera. It was the final dress rehearsal for Reel 3 in which Jimmy makes an entrance while Farley Granger is playing the piano. The piano stopped and silence ensued, as all eyes went to Stewart. He just made it into the room and was ready to open his mouth. ‘Just a minute,’ I said. ‘I’d like you to make your entrance differently.’

Jimmy punched the air in a defeated gesture. ‘Hey, look,’ he complained, ‘I’ve waited three weeks for this!’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

cropped-on_the_set_of_alfred_hitchcock_s_rope__1948_

Of course, the films huge Technicolor cameras didn’t make the process any easier:

“Technicolor helped but it wasn’t the star of the picture. Rope, incidentally, is the first time I’ve ever directed a Technicolor picture. I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key. In Rope, sets and costumes are neutralized so that there are no glaring contrasts. The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

If Hitchcock decided to make the film in color in order to give himself another new challenge to overcome, he succeeded admirably:

“Towards the last four or five reels, in other words, by sunset, I realized that the orange in the sun was far too strong, and on account of that we did the last five reels all over again…The cameraman on Rope [Joseph Valentine] simply said to himself, ‘Well, it’s just another sunset.’ Obviously, he hadn’t looked at one in a long time, if ever at all, and what he did was completely unacceptable; it was like a lurid postcard… After four or five days the cameraman went off ‘sick.’ So I wound up with a Technicolor consultant, and he completed the job with the help of the chief electrician.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

bts10

Obviously, there was little editing to be done on the film once the re-shoots were complete. The completed film is made up of eleven shots (if one includes the opening credits).

The following is a list of shot lengths:

Shot #1 (Opening Credits) – 02:30

Shot #2 – 09:34

Shot #3 – 07:51

Shot #4 – 07:18

Shot #5 – 07:08

Shot #6 – 09:57

Shot #7 – 07:33

Shot #8 – 07:46

Shot #9 – 10:06

Shot #10 – 04:37

Shot #11 – 05:38

One can see that the common belief that all of the shots were ten minutes long is quite untrue. It is also untrue that the director masked every cut by having someone or something pass in front of the camera. The projectors of the era only held two magazines of film at a time. It was necessary to include a traditional cut on every other reel. This reviewer feels that these traditional cuts are less noticeable than those that are masked. For better or worse, the film was finished and all the director could do at this point was hope for success. A lot was riding on the film. Transatlantic Pictures and the director’s ego were in jeopardy.

Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that the film was well received, but a look at the major reviews written at the time of release tells a slightly different story. To say that reviews were mixed is being charitable.

Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception nicely:

“The fondness of Alfred Hitchcock for cinematic tours de force is admirable evidence of the agility and aggressiveness of his mind. But it is also a disposition which sometimes leads him to stick out his neck and place it, professionally speaking, in positions of evident peril. It is in such a delicate position that his neck now appears to be lodged as the consequence of his having stretched it in his new film, an item called ‘Rope…’

…The novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt. And, with due regard for his daring (and for that of Transatlantic Films), one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be.

For apart from the tedium of waiting or someone to open that chest and discover the hidden body which the hosts have tucked away for the sake of a thrill, the unpunctuated flow of image becomes quite monotonous. And the effort of application to a story of meager range becomes intense. The physical limitation of the camera to one approach compels it to stay as an eavesdropper on lots of dialogue and lots of business that are dull. And the yarn, by the nature of its writing, is largely action-less…

…Also — and this may be simply a matter of personal taste – the emphasis on the macabre in this small story is frightfully intense. And it seems to this public observer that time could be better spent than by watching a waspish cocktail party in a room with a closely present corpse, placed there by a couple of young men who have killed for a thrill and nothing more…

… The use of Technicolor makes for realism in contrasting hues, but maybe the mood of this story would have come over better in black-and-white.

At all events, the picture takes on a dull tone as it goes and finally ends in a fizzle which is forecast almost from the start.” –New York Times (August 17, 1948)

The only point that this reviewer tends to agree with is that the film might have been better served by black and white photography. One assumes that the film was shot in color in order to enhance the effect of the lighting (such as the sunset outside of the window that caused so many problems during the production). Many of the major publications wrote similar reviews, but the film was able to make a minor profit. Unfortunately, the profit was not so great that it altered the opinions of John Q. Public and the film was perceived by many to be a failure. This is likely the reason that Hitchcock was so critical of the film and his methods during his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut:

“I undertook Rope as a stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it…When I look back; I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Truffaut recognized Hitchcock’s tendency to dismiss the projects that he perceived as failures and disagreed with the director’s dismissal of his experiment:

I don’t agree that Rope should be dismissed as a foolish experiment, particularly when you look at it in the context of your whole career: a director is tempted by the dream of linking all of a film’s components into a single, continuous action.  In this sense, it’s a positive step in your evolution.” -Francois Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

I agree with Truffaut. Scholarly opinion seems to be split today, but one feels that Rope cannot be discounted as ‘nonsensical.’ A look at the director’s work will show that the two films made for Transatlantic served the director well. Hitchcock’s style evolved because of his approach to these films. Rope is perhaps just as essential to the development of Hitchcock’s style as his move from Britain to America.

ss3B

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

collection page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

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

 MENU1

MENU3

MENU2

MENU4

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

ss7

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While Universal’s 1080p transfer is certainly disappointing, it is a major improvement on previous home video releases of the film. Much of the film plays in medium or full shots, so the film benefits greatly from the added resolution. The 35mm photography is sometimes soft, but detail is often impressive in closer shots. The muted color pallet sometimes looks as if it isn’t properly represented, but this never becomes an obvious issue. There is occasional haloing and film damage is noticeable at times, but these issues are never distracting. One doubts that the film will ever look any better a home video format without a substantial amount of money being thrown into a restoration. The transfer looks much better than it has on any DVD release and fans will likely feel that it is worth upgrading to this disc.

ss8

Sound Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The included two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix isn’t perfect either. Voices sometimes sound quite thin and the music tends to sound a bit muted at times. These issues never become a major problem, and dialogue is always clear and intelligible. There is little to no audible hiss to speak of either. The track will probably suit the requirements of most casual consumers.

ss9

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Rope Unleashed – (SD) – (32 min)

Any documentary on the making of Rope is certain to be interesting. Hume Cronyn discusses adapting the play into a treatment with Hitchcock, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents discusses his work on the screenplay, as well as the rather risque subtext of homosexuality in the film. This is an extremely informative documentary and its only flaw seems to be that there isn’t more information included about the unusual method that Hitchcock employed to shoot the film.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This gallery offers promotional stills, posters, behind the scenes photographs, and lobby cards.

Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Rope has an extremely interesting trailer that uses very little footage from the film. Instead, we see a glimpse of David and Janet before the former’s tragic death. James Stewart then addresses the audience as he discusses the case.

ss10

Final Words:

Fans of the master of suspense and students of cinema should not be without this film in their collection. The importance of the film makes up for the slightly disappointing transfer (which is an improvement over previous home video releases).

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

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

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

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

ss61

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-ss10

The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Box Set Art 5

Box Set Art 1

Box Set Art 2

Box Set Art 4

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

Menu 1

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

ss68

Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

-ss14

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

ss75

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

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

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

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

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

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

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

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

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

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

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

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

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

ss76

Final Words:

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

-ss cameo

The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

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

Review by: Devon Powell