Blu-ray Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train DVD front cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: 09/Oct/2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:40:49

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 29.91 Mpbs)

Main Audio: 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 768 Kbps, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio:

French Dolby Digital Mono

German Dolby Digital Mono

Italian Dolby Digital Mono

Spanish Dolby Digital Mono

Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono

Japanese Dolby Digital Mono

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

Ratio: 1.36:1

Bitrate: 31 Mbps

Notes: This title has also had a few DVD releases. The most notable of these is a 2004 2-Disc Special Edition (which contains the same special features that are included on this Blu-ray release).

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“For your information, Strangers on a Train was not an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with.” –Alfred Hitchcock

Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s undisputed classics. The film was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who would go on to write The Talented Mr. Ripley. The novel is quite different from the novel, but one can see why it appealed to Hitchcock. The wrong man scenario had already been a favorite of the director, but the line between guilt and innocence had always been clearly drawn. In Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines actually had murderous thoughts about his wife. He benefited from her death and this makes the familiar themes even stronger than in the director’s previous work.

Alfred Hitchcock originally had hired Raymond Chandler to work on the script, but the working relationship was unsatisfying for both men. Chandler had a disagreeable temperament and had infamously clashed with Billy Wilder when they worked together on Double Indemnity. His personality clashed with Hitchcock’s working method of being actively involved in the writing process. He became so aggravated with the director that he was not above making cruel passive-aggressive comments. One day Chandler remarked loudly (and within earshot of the director), “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!” Needless to say, the director looked elsewhere for a writer to help him adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel into a screenplay.

We’d sit together and I would say, ‘Why not do it this way?’ and he’d answer, ‘Well, if you can puzzle it out, what do you need me for?’ …The work he did was no good and I ended up with Czenzi Ormonde, a woman writer who was one of Ben Hecht’s assistants. When I completed the treatment, the head of Warner’s tried to find someone to do the dialogue, and very few writers would touch it. None of them thought it was any good.” –Alfred Hitchcock

To say that Chandler’s ego was bruised may well be the understatement of the century. He was livid and let Hitchcock know this in a letter dated December 6th, 1950.

“Dear Hitch,

In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing your mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a ‘far less brilliant mind than mine’ to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time. [Signed: ‘Raymond Chandler’]-Raymond Chandler (The Raymond Chandler Papers)

With all of the trouble that Hitchcock had during the scripting stage, it is even more amazing that the end result has become one of the director’s most recognized and well loved classics. Perhaps this is because the film featured one of the most memorable villains in Hitchcock’s canon. Robert Walker’s portrayal of Bruno is one of the highlights of the film. He exudes a slimy charm that does little to camouflage the character’s many kinks, but goes a long way in creating sympathy for the psychopath. The public adored the film, and critics seemed to disagree with Chandler’s opinion of the script. One such example is the warm review that was published in Variety.

“Given a good basis for a thriller in the Patricia Highsmith novel [script adaption by Whitfield Cook] and a first-rate script, Hitchcock embroiders the plot into a gripping, palm-sweating piece of suspense.” -Variety (December 31, 1950)

There were a few critics that were less than impressed with the film. Bosley Crowthers wrote a decidedly hostile review of the film.

“…Hitchcock again is tossing a crazy murder story in the air and trying to con us into thinking that it will stand up without support. And again his instigator of evil is a weirdly unbalanced young man who almost succeeds in enmeshing a young tennis star in a murder plot…

…Perhaps there will be those in the audience who will likewise be terrified by the villain’s darkly menacing warnings and by Mr. Hitchcock’s sleekly melodramatic tricks. Certainly, Mr. Hitchcock is the fellow who can pour on the pictorial stuff and toss what are known as “touches” until they’re flying all over the screen. From the slow, stalking murder of a loose girl in a tawdry amusement park to a “chase” and eventual calamity aboard a runaway merry-go-round, the nimble director keeps piling “touch” and stunt upon “touch.” Indeed, his desire to produce them appears his main impulse in this film.

But, for all that, his basic premise of fear fired by menace is so thin and so utterly unconvincing that the story just does not stand. And the actors, as much as they labor, do not convey any belief — at least, not to this observer, who will give Hitchcock character plenty of rope…

…Also, it might be mentioned that there are a few inaccuracies in this film that may cause some knowing observers considerable skeptical pause — such as the evidence that you get to the Washington Union Station by going into Virginia over the Memorial Bridge. Also a purist might question how a tennis star could race around Washington half the night and then win three grueling sets of tennis in a Forest Hills tourney the next day.

Frankly, we feel that Mr. Hitchcock is “touching” us just a bit too much and without returning sufficient recompense in the sensation line.” -The New York Times (July 4, 1951)

Needless to say, this opinion was not shared by the majority. The film was a massive success. The film is often listed as one of Hitchcock’s best and is essential viewing. Roger Ebert even included the film in his list of “Great Movies.”

“…The movie is usually ranked among Hitchcock’s best (I would put it below only Vertigo, Notorious, Psycho and perhaps Shadow of a Doubt), and its appeal is probably the linking of an ingenious plot with insinuating creepiness. That combination came in the first place from Highsmith, whose novels have been unfairly shelved with crime fiction when she actually writes mainstream fiction about criminals…” -Chicago Sun Times (January 1, 2004)

Those who have yet to see the film are advised to remedy this unfortunate oversight.

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The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is housed in the standard blue case with new cover art. I must admit that I prefer the artwork used for the 2-disc Special Edition DVD release of the film. I believe that it used some of the original promotional artwork for the film.

Strangers on a Train DVD back cover

The static menu utilizes the same artwork and is supported by music from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for the film. 

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soat menu2

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers provides Hitchcock fans with a near perfect image transfer. The film is notable for being the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s successful collaboration with Robert Burks, who would work on all of the master’s subsequent films through Marnie (with the notable exception of Psycho). Burks’ noir-esque cinematography looks especially crisp on this transfer. The contrast is stark and solid with rich blacks and solid whites. Shadow detail is also excellent and free from crush. The picture exhibits wonderful clarity and the added resolution enhances details that were lost in standard definition transfers of the film. The film remains faithful to its celluloid source and features a cinematic layer of grain. There is no noticeable DNR or Edge enhancement marring the image. The only issue that one might notice is the occasional nick or speck of dirt on the print (and they would have to really be looking for them to notice their existence).

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Sound Quality: 

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The lossless 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio sounds better than it has ever sounded (and likely as good as it will ever sound in the future). The track exhibits remarkable fidelity, but there is a certain thinness to certain areas of the track (notably with the music). These issues seem inherent in the source and are never distracting. The dialogue and effects were well mixed and the track represents the best possible listening experience available.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Preview Version of Strangers on a Train – (SD) – (01:42:57)

The infamous “Preview Version” of Strangers on a Train was once referred to as the “British Version” due to a labeling error. The film was previewed prior to release with this version and then altered for release. This version of the film was given a limited theatrical release in 1996.

This early cut of the film runs about two minutes longer and ends differently than the theatrical cut. The theatrical version has the superior ending, but I prefer the longer opening train sequence on this cut of the film.

This feature is presented in standard definition, but looks a bit better than it did on the 2004 DVD release of the film.

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Audio Commentary

The commentary track includes quite a long list of participants (some more engaging than others). I was surprised that one of the more interesting commentators was Andrew Wilson (Patricia Highsmith’s biographer), who discussed the film’s source novel. There is also a short interview excerpt from Whitfield Cook (who worked with Hitchcock on the film’s treatment). This was one of the more interesting inclusions. Actress Kasey Rogers discusses her memories of shooting the film and her comments are extremely welcome. Perhaps the best commentator was Hitchcock himself (via his interview with Peter Bogdanovich).

Less engaging are comments from people who worked with the director on later films. Joseph Stefano seems a bit out of place here. He discusses Strangers on a Train, but the fact that he is discussing a film that he wasn’t involved with is a bit awkward. The list goes on. This is certainly an engaging listen, but it is a rather uneven track. Warner Brothers should be applauded for their efforts in attempting to provide fans with an informative commentary track. One must remember that the film is 62 years old and most of the cast and crew who worked on the film are now deceased.

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Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic – (SD) – (00:36:40)

This is the closest that the disc comes to a “making of” documentary on the film. The documentary features Farley Granger, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, Robert Walker Jr., and several film scholars and biographers. The piece is consistently interesting, and offers viewers a few ‘behind the scenes’ stories from the set. Andrew Wilson also discusses differences in the novel and Hitchcock’s film and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is briefly mentioned as well. This is not as comprehensive as one might prefer, but this 2004 supplement is worth seeing.

Strangers on a Train: The Victim’s P.O.V. – (SD) – (00:07:22)

Kasey Rogers (alias Laura Elliott) discusses portraying Miriam in the film. One wonders why Mrs. Rogers wasn’t included in the disc’s “making of” documentary, but this featurette is extremely welcome and possibly one of the better supplements included on the disc.

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Strangers on a Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan – (SD) – (00:12:46)

Contemporary director, M. Night Shyamalan discusses his admiration of the film. It is a curious addition to the disc.

The Hitchcocks on Hitch – (SD) – (00:11:20)

This feature includes home movies of Hitchcock and his family supplemented by interviews with his daughters and granddaughters about their memories of Alfred Hitchcock. This featurette focuses on Hitchcock’s family life and this makes it a slightly more sentimental experience. Fans of the director will welcome this featurette.

Newsreel Footage: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Historical Meeting” – (SD) – (00:01:08)

This silent newsreel footage is a curious inclusion. It is difficult to decipher what is happening without the sound.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (00:02:34)

This is perhaps not as amusing as some of the director’s later trailers, but it is always interesting to see how classic films were sold to audiences.

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Final Words:

Warner Brothers has given Strangers on a Train a wonderful Blu-ray release that includes a near perfect high definition image and a respectable collection of supplementary material

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition

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Distributor: Universal

Release Date: October 19/2010, October 29/2012 (‘The Masterpiece Collection’)

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:48:59

Video: 1080P (AVC Advanced Video, 23.976fps)

Main Audio: 5.1 English Master Audio (DTS-HD 6 channels, 24bit, 48kHz)

English Mono (DTS 2.0, 24-bit, 48kHz, 384kbps)

Alternate Audio:

French Mono (DTS 2.0, 24bit, 48KHz, 384kbps)

Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 32Mbps

 Notes: This disc is the same transfer used in “The Masterpiece Collection” boxed set.

 This title is also available on The Legacy Series 2-DVD set and contains an SD version of the transfer as well as most of the same special features. Instead of the Psycho Sound featurette, the release includes the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, Lamb to the Slaughter.

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 “I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho. The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously. It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway. So you mustn’t go too far because you want them to get off the railway giggling with pleasure.” –Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho is an extremely pleasurable film to watch. It might very well be the most iconic film of all time. The film is held in such high regard that it is rather difficult to believe that initial critical reaction was less than favorable. This is actually a huge understatement. A few of the reviews from the era might be considered hostile.

An example is this scathing review written by CA Lejeune for The Observer:

“A new film by Alfred Hitchcock is usually a keen enjoyment. Psycho turns out to be an exception… There follows one of the most disgusting murders in all screen history. It takes place in a bathroom and involves a great deal of swabbing of the tiles and flushings of the lavatory. It might be described with fairness as plug ugly.

Psycho is not a long film but it feels long. Perhaps because the director dawdles over technical effects; perhaps because it is difficult, if not impossible, to care about any of the characters.

The stupid air of mystery and portent surrounding Psycho’s presentation strikes me as a tremendous error…I couldn’t give away the ending if I wanted to, for the simple reason that I grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business that I didn’t stop to see it. Your edict may keep me out of the theatre, my dear Hitchcock, but I’m hanged if it will keep me in.” –CA Lejeune

There were many such reviews. It has been theorized that the critics were angered because they were not allowed a special screening of the film and held the inconvenience of watching the film with regular audiences against Hitchcock. According to this theory, the critics took their revenge by assaulting the director with poised pens. I suppose that this is possible. Another possibility is that they were simply expecting another North by Northwest and instead, the director delivered something radically different. Critics have been known to hold it against a film when it does not meet their expectations.

In the end, it does not matter why critics seemed to hate the film because they were forced to reconsider their appraisals when audiences loved Psycho. Many people saw the film multiple times. It was a phenomenal success on every level. By the end of the year, even critics were singing its praises. Some of the very same critics that condemned the film upon its original release were writing new reviews claiming it as one of the year’s best.

Psycho has lost none of its appeal. It is less shocking to modern audiences, but Psycho is still as enjoyable today as it was over 53 years ago. It is probably one of the most studied films in cinema history and interest doesn’t seem to be waning.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

 The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho is housed in the standard blue case with absolutely gorgeous cover art.

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 The menus are also gorgeous and employ sepia tinted footage from the film itself. It is visually stunning, but the presentation is slightly marred by the lack of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. This is only a minor complaint and this issue should not detract from the viewer’s home video experience.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The picture really looks remarkable and is a vast improvement over other home video releases of the film with incredibly crisp detail evident throughout the film. The contrast looks attractive and reasonably accurate, which essential in this particular film. The grain seems in keeping with the celluloid source and isn’t distracting but welcome and in keeping with the texture of the original cinematography. There is unfortunately some slight aliasing to report (especially on certain fabrics) and there may be some noise related issues on certain landscape oriented shots in the film. The print is not immaculate and there are occasional black and white specks to report. None of these issues is likely to be distracting to most viewers. This is the best Psycho has looked on home video and it surpasses any expectations that most viewers are likely to have. It might not rival the exceptional Warner Brothers release of North by Northwest, but comparing the transfer to that particular 8K restoration print seems incredibly unfair.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins 

The 5.1 TrueHD sound mix of the film’s original elements is likely to be a controversial issue amongst purists. The mix sounds incredible, but it seems as if there are sound effects missing from the 5.1 track that are evident in the film’s original soundtrack. It isn’t distractingly evident and it is doubtful that most viewers will even notice. However, it seems rather unfortunate (considering how meticulous Hitchcock was about his soundtrack). The mix itself is enjoyable and compliments the film nicely enough, but some will probably prefer the original mono track. Luckily, this track is also available on the disc (though not in high definition).

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Special Features: 

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Psycho does not offer many features exclusive to the Blu-ray disc, but it does port over the many excellent features from the DVD releases.

Audio Commentary with Stephen Rebello

Stephen Rebello is known for writing the book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” His commentary is informative and focuses on the film’s production. He manages to relay a wealth of information in an engaging and entertaining manner. There is a lot to love about this commentary and it adds value to this release.

The Making of Psycho – (SD) – (01:34:06)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary is probably the most comprehensive and well made documentaries on the making of a single Hitchcock film that I have ever seen. It covers every aspect of production in great detail. It might have been better if archive footage of Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, and Vera Miles were included. I know that relevant footage is available. Oddly, the documentary is so enthralling that the absence of these key contributors goes unnoticed until it is over. They are certainly discussed at great length. The documentary is far from a mere fluff piece. It is the best feature on the entire disc.

Newsreel Footage: The Release of ‘Psycho’ – (SD) – (00:07:45)

This is a vintage promotional newsreel revealing Hitchcock’s unique policies surrounding the film’s release. It is surprisingly witty and entertaining. Hitchcock fans will love it.

In the Master’s Shadow – Hitchcock’s Legacy – (SD) – (00:25:27)

Contemporary filmmakers discuss Hitchcock’s influence and why his movies continue to thrill audiences. This is actually much better than it sounds, because we see clips from contemporary films that illustrate the director’s profound influence on contemporary cinema.

Psycho Sound – (HD) – (00:09:58)

This brief featurette is new to the Blu-ray disc and looks at the re-mastering process used to create the 5.1 mix from the original mono elements. It is interesting, but is of less interest than the supplements about the film’s production.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (00:06:36)

Theatrical trailers are rarely this entertaining. Instead of featuring footage from the actual film, Alfred Hitchcock gives a fabulously witty tour of the iconic set. He cryptically teases the audience with plot details, but reveals only enough information to make the audience curious. It is really quite delightful.

Re-Release Trailers – (SD) – (00:01:51)

These re-release trailers are less interesting than the original theatrical trailer, but they are certainly worth watching.

The Shower Scene (with and without music) – (SD) – (00:02:31)

This feature allows viewers the opportunity to view the famous shower scene with and without Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. It is actually surprising how differently the scene plays. The scene actually works quite well without music, but the effect is completely different. Without Herrmann’s score, the scene is less startling and more devastating. The sounds of the knife tearing through flesh, along with the Marion’s screams and whimpers make the moment more intimate when they are played against silence. The horror becomes more personal. There is no doubt that the score contributed to the scene’s success, but for reasons that I would have never guessed. Other people are certain to have different reactions than mine, but this supplement will remain interesting for almost everyone.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview – (00:15:21)

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 audio clips are presented over clips from the film, which increases one’s enjoyment.

The Shower Scene Storyboards – (SD)

These are the famous storyboards for the film that were drawn by Saul Bass, who designed the title sequence for the film.

The Psycho Archives – (SD)

This is merely a collection of photo galleries related to the production and marketing of Psycho. The way that it is listed on the disc is rather misleading (it implies that this is a separate feature and it is merely another set of stills).

Posters & Psycho Ads – (SD)

This is a wonder gallery of poster concepts and ads from the theatrical release of the film.

Lobby Cards – (SD)

This is an excellent gallery of lobby cards used to promote the film.

Behind-The-Scenes Photographs – (SD)

These photos show the cast and crew while they were shooting the film.

*The disc is also My Scenes capable and BD-LIVE enabled.

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Final Words:

This release surpasses expectations. The disc’s flaws are eclipsed by its merits and it deserves a place of honor on your Blu-ray shelf.

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Reviewed by: Devon Powell