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

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English LPCM Mono (48 kHz, 1152 kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

Notes: Criterion also released a DVD edition of this title. There are probably a few public domain discs that are available, but these should be avoided (the quality is terrible).

Title

“What I liked about Thirty-Nine Steps were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity… If I did The Thirty-Nine Steps again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

The film moves so rapidly that it is actually rather difficult to discuss The 39 Steps in the same manner that one might discuss other Hitchcock films. The film seems void of any real substance after a mere casual viewing. However, the film has more going on than many critics believe. Even Hitchcock’s MacGuffin isn’t as empty as people often claim. Mark Glancy discusses this in “The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide” while providing a context for both the film, and its MacGuffin.

“One key of updating the story was to change the object of the spies’ pursuit. In the novel, The Black Stone seeks the plans for the disposition of the British fleet in the event of war, which was a matter of great strategic importance in 1914. In the interwar years, however, the significance of naval power steadily waned, particularly in the minds of the general public. The next war, it was predicted, would be fought in the air, and the country with the greatest air force would be capable of a quick and decisive victory. It was assumed that the war would begin with a surprise attack from the air, and that this would result in the mass slaughter of civilians. Thus, in the film the spies seek the plans for a silent airplane engine rather than naval plans. This was not only timely and topical in 1935, but also a pointed reference to Germany. When the screenplay was written in the autumn of 1934, Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for nearly two years, and the Nazis already had achieved a significant degree of infamy… Winston Churchill warned from the backbenches that Germany was developing its own air force at a faster rate. At a time when radar did not yet exist, this seemed a catastrophic scenario. Indeed, the concept of the silent airplane engine lends further credence to an already often heard yet very disturbing phrase of the times, ‘the bomber will always get through.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The pending war was an unspoken character of the film, and this plays into one of the underlying themes. Hitchcock has always challenged people’s tendency towards complacency, and in The 39 Steps, this actually takes on a political meaning that is an extension of the subject matter introduced by the film’s MacGuffin.

“…At nearly every stop on Hannay’s cross-country journey we find complacency and venality. It is a vision of a country without confidence, unity or purpose.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

While Hitchcock is never politically explicit, there does seem to be a lot going on under the surface of what is otherwise an extremely enjoyable chase film. Hitchcock was working for Gaumont-British Studios, which was the most prestigious studio in Britain at the time. Michael Balcon had brought Alfred Hitchcock to the studio at a low point in his career, but he gave the director freedom to choose and develop his projects in any manner that he saw fit. This freedom paid off for both the studio and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was a modest hit, but the studio squandered most of its potential by putting it on the second half of a double bill. The film’s B-movie status was the result of C.M. Woolf, the film’s distributor (but this is another story). Fortunately, the production breathed life into Hitchcock’s creative mojo.

“…When The Man Who Knew Too Much was completed in October, 1934, they thought of adapting Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’ (the second of the Richard Hannay Stories) next. ‘Greenmantle’ involved adventures that were spread across all of Europe and into the Middle East, though, and so it was probably considered too expensive to mount. Hitchcock later said that The Thirty-Nine Steps was chosen instead because it was a ‘smaller subject.’ It certainly proved to be a subject that could be quickly made. Work on the script began in November 1934, filming began two months later and the film was released in June 1935.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Hitchcock often claimed Buchan had “a strong influence” on his work, but this didn’t mean that he had any undue reverence for the source material.

“I had been wanting to turn John Buchan’s novel into a film for over fifteen years. I first read the book round about 1919 or 1920, a long time before I started my directing career. I said that if I ever became a director I would make a picture of it. It was, therefore, on my suggestion that Gaumont-British decided to make the film so many years later. I hadn’t read the book in the meantime. When I did so, with an eye to turning it into a film, I received a shock. I had learned a lot about filmmaking in the fifteen odd years that had elapsed. Though I could still see the reason for my first enthusiasm—the book was full of action—I found that the story as it stood was not in the least suitable for screening.

So many of the scenes, which were convincing enough in print, would have looked unbelievable on the screen—as, for instance, when Hannay saw a motor car approaching; realized that he would be captured if it reached him and he were spotted; saw some stone-breakers, and in a minute or two had disguised himself as one of these workmen. Dressed up in Buchan’s powerful art of description you could believe that in the book; but you wouldn’t if you saw it in a picture. The novel had Hannay running away from spies. For screen purposes I deemed it better to have him escaping from the police and searching for the spies so that he could clear his own name.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s chief collaborator on the film was Charles Bennett (if one ignores Alma, which is usually the case), and he shared Hitchcock’s opinion of Buchan’s original novel.

“…So at Hitch’s request, I joined GB in 1933 and began dramatizing John Buchan’s book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” No easy task, as it wasn’t really a filmable story. The story contained just one good basic plot point—the double chase—an innocent man accused of murder, on the run with both the police and the ‘heavies’ out to get him. But the book lacked incident, it hadn’t a woman in it—neither the Madeline Carroll character nor Peggy Ashcroft’s character as the crofter’s wife. And practically every twist of events was based on an unlikely coincidence. By the end of my work on it, the entire construction was mine, with a lot of wonderful dialogue written by Ian Hay, a British playwright who later became the director of public relations at the British War Office.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Hitchcock’s tendency to gloss over the input of his writers pales in comparison with Bennett’s attempts at hogging credit.

“…In those early days the allocation of credits was up to the producer, and things got awfully messed up when a ‘name’ writer who had done practically nothing got the main credit—whereas the guy who really had done the job but was less well known got practically nothing. Along this line, Alma Hitchcock received credits she did not deserve.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

This is complete nonsense. The script was a collaborative effort, both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock deserve an equal amount of credit. We admit that the contributions of Charles Bennett have been overlooked, but to claim that Alma’s credit was undeserved is ridiculous. The truth is that she deserved more credit than she received. Ivor Montagu’s recollections were probably more accurate.

“The story conferences were a feast of fancy and dialectic, a mixture of composing crosswords and solving them, both laced with humour. We would sit around his flat. Sometimes Alma would be there, sometimes the scenario editor Angus MacPhail… The unfolding was elaborated with suggestions from all of us; everything was welcomed if not always agreed. In the end the scripts were by consensus; the only special privilege their credited authors had was to write them down. The scenes were of course finalized by Hitchcock and his verbal texts then duplicated from the writers’ notes. [Michael Balcon] never interfered. He simply created the conditions and confidence for us to work.” –Ivor Montagu (Sight and Sound, Working With Hitchcock, 1980)

During his infamous interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock elaborated on the process while giving an especially amusing account as to the origins of the Crofter sequence.

“…The method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need another short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Anyway, despite my admiration for John Buchan, there are several things in the picture that are not in the book. For instance, the scene in the film in which Robert Donat spends the night with the farmer and his wife was inspired by an old story about a South African Boer, a black-bearded ma, very austere, with a very young, sex-starved wife. On his birthday she kills a chicken and bakes a chicken pie. It’s a very stormy night and she hopes that her husband will be pleased with her surprise. All she gets for her pains is an angry husband, who berates her for killing the chicken without his permission. Hence, a grim birthday celebration. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there stands a handsome stranger who has lost his way and requests a night’s hospitality. The woman invites him to sit down and offers him some food, but the farmer, feeling he’s eating too much, stops him and says, ‘Hold on, there. This has got to last us the rest of the week.’

The woman is hungrily eyeing the stranger, wondering how she can get to bed with him. The husband suggests that they put him out in the barn, but the woman objects. Finally, the three of them go to sleep in the great big bed, with the farmer in the middle. The woman is trying to find some way to get rid of her husband, and finally, hearing a noise, she wakes him, saying, ‘I think the chickens are out of the coop.” The husband goes out to the yard, and the woman shakes the stranger awake, saying, ‘Come on. Now’s your chance.’ So the stranger gets out of bed and quickly gulps down the rest of the chicken pie.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Interestingly, the writing team borrowed inspiration from real life as well. One example was a throwback to the days when Hitchcock would attend London’s music halls:

“There was also another interesting character in the film, Mr. Memory. He’s based on a true-life music-hall personality called Datas. The audience would ask him questions about major events, like: ‘when did the Titanic sink?’ and he would give the correct answer…

…The whole idea is that the man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answer. The schoolteacher in The Birds dies for the same reason.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Michael Balcon was impressed with the resulting script, and gave the film priority status at Gaumont-British. This would be evidenced by the film’s casting. Originally, the part of Pamela was given to Jane Baxter. She was offered £500 to perform in the film, but this never came to pass. Instead, it was decided that they should cast a much more popular actress in the role. Madeline Carroll suited the film’s needs perfectly, and her £5,000 salary was well worth the bite that it took out of the film’s final £58,449 budget.

It is strange how very well Madeleine fitted into the part. I had heard a lot about her as a tall, cold, blonde beauty, dignified and all that. Not exactly… The real type for a boisterous role or where intense activity would give little chance for draping herself round the furniture and what not. You see, I had seldom seen her on the screen, because I very rarely take a busman’s holiday. I knew only her photographs. Calm and serene barely describes them! They were certainly beautiful, but so very cold. My word, they would almost chill a refrigerator! …

…Why is it that actors and actresses are almost invariably cast exactly to type? In her case her obvious good looks had nearly been her downfall. It is very hard with merely the material of good looks to create a character, especially when they are completely devitalized by absence of action…

…After meeting her, I made up my mind to present her to the public as her natural self. You see what I mean? In The 39 Steps the public is seeing a Madeleine Carroll who has no time to be calm and serene. She is far too busy racing over moors, rushing up and down embankments, and scrambling over rocks.”–Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Norah Baring, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Madeline Carroll

Madeline Carroll is considered by many to be the prototypical “Hitchcock Blonde.” Others give this honor to Anny Ondra.

Carroll’s appearance along with Robert Donat made the international success of the film possible. These two stars gave the film an A-picture respectability that Hitchcock had never enjoyed on an international level prior to this production.

“I could not have wished for a better Hannay than Robert Donat. One of the chief reasons for his success—in addition, of course, to his natural looks, charm, and personality—is the good theatrical training he has behind him. He is blazingly ambitious but difficult to satisfy. He is a queer combination of determination and uncertainty. He is determined to do only pictures that satisfy him. He will be enthusiastic about an idea, then suddenly discard it completely. These are qualities of temperament that only a great actor like Donat can enjoy.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Certain members of the film’s supporting cast are also noteworthy. This is especially true of Peggy Ashcroft’s portrayal of the crofter’s wife. Ashcroft’s name would have carried a certain amount of weight in England at the time (especially to anyone that attended the theatre). Hitchcock often made it a point to mention her in his articles and interviews with the press while promoting the film.

“I should like to mention Peggy Ashcroft’s appearance as the crofter’s wife in The 39 Steps. It was brief but significant, especially when you consider that this was only her second film role. I am convinced that this delightful Juliet of John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet has a brilliant career in front of her. The greatest thing about her is her extreme simplicity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s status as a practical joker has long been a favorite subject of anyone interested in his films, and his reported antics during the production of The 39 Steps are certainly noteworthy. Robert Donat recalled an infamous incident that has long been discussed and written about.

“On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each have one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene, ‘Hitch’ lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchange experiences. When ‘Hitch’ saw that we were getting along famously, he extract the ‘missing’ key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, ‘Now that you two know each other we can go ahead.’ Had it not been for Hitchcock’s little ruse, Madeleine and I would probably have taken quite a time to ‘get together’ — to the detriment of our work in the interim.-Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

There was method in this madness. Hitchcock’s behavior was his sly way of getting a particular kind of performance from his actors. Of course, this is less interesting than blaming a penchant for sadistic behavior 9or some sort of malicious chauvinism), but it makes much more sense. This is especially true when one considers that Donat was probably subjected to more pranks than Carol.

“It was in that picture, too, that I pulled [another] gag on Donat. He complained that the waterfall scene had ruined his clothes. The ruining of actors’ clothes and the demand that the company should replace them is a long standing bone which actors and directors pick amiably enough during production.

When Robert demanded a new suit, I gave him one out of my own pocket. I sent round for a 14s. Child’s suit from a neighborhood cheap store…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Of course, this particular prank seems to be an attempt at humbling what Hitchcock must have considered an overly haughty temperament. Whatever the case, these things are purposely often blown out of proportion for publicity purposes. It is a fact that Gaumont-British used exaggerated versions of these in their publicity materials for the film. It is difficult to know just which version of these stories to believe (if any).

Actually, it seems that the publicity machine worked overtime during the release of The 39 Steps.

“Gaumont-British was confident that The 39 Steps would be a great box-office success in Britain. Michael Balcon, eager to raise the profile of Gaumont-British as a production company, urged that the company’s name should be featured prominently in the advertising, on the grounds that ‘it may be a long time before we have another chance like this.’ In the week of the film’s release, four consecutive pages of advertisements were taken out in the British trade paper Kinematograph Weekly. One page was usual for a new film, two indicated an important release, but a four page spread signaled a cinematic event. Perhaps most telling, The 39 Steps was booked to run at the New Gallery Theatre for a full five weeks. The New Gallery had 1,400 seats, and films tended to spend no more than two or three weeks in such a large venue, but even the five-week engagement proved to be an underestimation of the film’s popularity. Fueled by enthusiastic reviews, The 39 Steps was still going strong at the end of its fifth week. The New Gallery had another booking and so The 39 Steps moved to the similarly capacious Marble Arch Pavillion, where it lasted no fewer than eight weeks… It had spent sixteen weeks in some of the West End’s largest venues, a record surpassed that year only by the Hollywood epic, Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

At the time, it was usual for important releases to be shown first in London’s West End, and have an exclusive run at advanced admission prices, before being released anywhere else. Hence, The 39 Steps didn’t play anywhere apart from the West End until the autumn of 1935 when it began to make its way around Britain. It then followed the standard release pattern of playing first in major cities and in regional capitols such as Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Cardiff, and then moving on to smaller cities, provincial towns and local theatres.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The film was a sensation. It received the same enthusiasm everywhere that it was shown in Britain (and it was shown nearly everywhere). It was also a sensation in Canada, and brought respectable business in the United States and other territories. As a matter of fact, the film is responsible for building Hitchcock’s positive reputation in Hollywood.

Of course, the film’s critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. C. A. Lejeune’s review in The Observer is a prime example. She was especially enthusiastic about Robert Donat’s star potential.

“Mr. Donat, who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order … He strikes … an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom. Mr. Donat, himself, I fancy, is hardly conscious of it, which is all to the good. Mr. Hitchcock is certainly conscious of it, and exploits his new star material with all the easy confidence of a local Van Dyke or Capra.” – C. A. Lejeune (The Observer as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Sydney Carroll’s review in the Sunday Times preferred to focus his praise on Alfred Hitchcock.

“Every film of real quality bears the unforgettable stamp of its creator. Individuality is a rare and precious thing. In moving pictures it is exceptionally hard to discover. When it is there, however, it usually assumes a force and distinction unmistakably attributable to its director, and to its director alone. In The 39 Steps, the identity and mind of Alfred Hitchcock are continuously discernible, in fact supreme. Hitchcock is a genius.” –Sydney Carroll (Sunday Times as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Variety published another positive review that spoke generally about the film.

“Gaumont has a zippy, punchy, romantic melodrama in The 39 Steps. Story is by John Buchan. It’s melodrama and at times far-fetched and improbable, but the story twists and spins artfully from one high-powered sequence to another while the entertainment holds like steel cable from start to finish…

…It’s a creamy role for Donat and his performance, ranging from humor to horror, reveals acting ability behind that good-looking facade. Teamed with Madeleine Carroll, who enters the footage importantly only toward the latter quarter section of the film, the romance is given a light touch which nicely colors an international spy chase.” -Variety (December 31, 1934)

The review published in The Times was written with the same pretentious pomposity that one might expect from the publication, but it remains overwhelmingly positive.

“Readers may not find it easy to relate the Richard Hannay they knew in the novel to the humorous happy-go-lucky adventurer who goes by the same name in this film, but they are bound to condone the freedom of an adaptation which has produced such excellent results.

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of the story gives us a first rate film of adventure edged with comedy; what in the theatre would be called a ‘comedy thriller.’ Its climax verges upon ingenuity of the kind that we resent, but by the time that it has been reached we have been much too, well entertained to think of resenting it. For the greater part of the film the ingenuity never fails to justify itself pictorially, and Mr. Robert Donat, who plays the amateur hunter of spies, and Miss Madeleine Carroll, as his unwilling companion in misfortune, know how to get the last ounce of excitement from an adventure approached humorously.

The sequence, in which Hannay shelters the woman spy in his London flat and falls under suspicion of having murdered her, is perhaps a little chilly in its conventionality, but once the double chase has begun, once the police get on Hannay’s track, and he gets on the track of the master spy, Mr. Hitchcock takes and keeps a firm and highly individual grip of the story. The camera makes extraordinarily effective play with the police search of the Scotch express and with Hannay’s escape among the girders of the Forth Bridge. In the Highlands it turns to account not only the rocks and waterfalls but the stillness of the hill recesses, and the episode of the avaricious crofter and his romantic wife, skilfully presented by Mr. John Laurie and Miss Peggy Ashcroft, is a genuine point of rest which enhances the excitement of the chase. Mr. Godfrey Tearle gives us the politeness and the ruthlessness of the chief spy; Mr. Frank Cellier the self-satisfaction of the sheriff who is too clever to perceive the truth when it is told to him; and Mr. Wylie Watson the comically mechanical make-up of the music hall memorizer through whom the Air Ministry’s secrets are passed to the head of the Thirty-Nine Steps.” -The Times (June 06, 1935)

This incredibly positive review published in Harrison’s Reports gave Hitchcock a compliment that he rarely received when it used the word “logically.”

“Very good entertainment. It is a combination murder mystery-spy melodrama, with fast melodramatic action, comedy and romance throughout; it holds the attention well, keeping the spectator in suspense. The plot is worked out logically with a particularly ingenious ending in which the villain is trapped. The thrills are engendered by the many attempts the hero makes to escape from the police, who were trying to arrest him for a murder he had not committed. Besides being exciting these situations provoke comedy because of the means the hero uses to gain his freedom. Equally exciting and amusing are the situations in which the heroine is handcuffed to the hero and is forced to do his bidding. The production and acting are goo…

…Because of the murder it is unsuitable for children or adolescents. It is very good adult entertainment.” -Harrison’s Reports (June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald’s review for the New York Times is a virtual love letter to Alfred Hitchcock.

“Alfred Hitchcock, the gifted English screen director, has made one of the fascinating pictures of the year in The Thirty-nine Steps, his new film at the Roxy Theatre. If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate and entertaining melodrama of 1935, then it must be The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also out of Hitchcock’s workshop. A master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit, he uses his camera the way a painter uses his brush, stylizing history and giving it values which the scenarists could hardly have suspected. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of The Thirty-nine Steps, the best of our melodramas seem crude and brawling.

If you can imagine Anatole France writing a detective story you will have some notion of the artistry that Hitchcock brings to this screen version of John Buchan’s novel. Like The Man Who Knew Too Much, the photoplay immerses a quite normal human being in an incredible dilemma where his life is suddenly at stake and his enemies are mysterious, cruel and disparate… Hitchcock describes the remarkable chain of events in Hannay’s flight across England and Scotland with a blend of unexpected comedy and breathless terror that is strikingly effective.

Perhaps the identifying hallmark of his method is apparent absence of accent in the climaxes, which are upon the spectator like a slap in the face before he has set himself for the blow. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay’s apartment, the icy ferocity of the man with the missing finger when he casually shoots Hannay, or the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, the action progresses through seeming indifference to whip-like revelations. There is a subtle feeling of menace on the screen all the time in Hitchcock’s low-slung, angled use of the camera. But the participants, both Hannay and his pursuers, move with a repressed excitement that adds significance to every detail of their behavior.

Robert Donat as the suavely desperate hero of the adventure is excellent both in the comic and the tragic phases of his plight. The lovely Madeleine Carroll, who begins by betraying him and believes his story when it is almost too late, is charming and skillful. All the players preserve that sureness of mood and that understanding of the director’s intention which distinguished The Man Who Knew Too Much. There are especially fine performances by John Laurie as the treacherous Scot who harbors the fugitive, Peggy Ashcroft as his sympathetic wife, Godfrey Tearle as the man with the missing finger, and Wylie Watson as the memory expert of the music halls, who proves to be the hub of the mystery.” -Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Time magazine’s review added its voice to the chorus of praise as well.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Gaumont-British) neatly converts its essential implausibility into an asset by stressing the difficulties which confront its hero when he tries to tell outsiders about the predicament he is in. A young Canadian named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), he finds himself one evening, as the result of nothing more daring than a visit to a London music hall, entertaining in his flat a girl who tells him that she is a counter-espionage agent protecting England from an international ring which is selling the secrets of the Air Ministry and that she has just committed a murder. Hannay considers this nonsense until the next morning, when he finds his guest dying with a knife in her back. Thus assured of her veracity, he constitutes himself heir to her quest and with the meagre information she has given him sets out to solve the riddle of the Thirty-Nine Steps.

Harried by the police, who suspect him of murdering the counterspy, by the members of the ring, who soon find out that he is on their trail, and by a charming young lady (Madeleine Carroll) whom he picks up in the course of a wild night on the Scottish moors, Hannay plunges through a series of hairbreadth escapes and escapades, some of them horrifying, some of them extraordinarily funny. The funniest, possibly, is the one in which, mistaken at a political meeting for the speaker of the evening, he makes himself the hero of the occasion by an address composed of foolish generalities. The most exciting is that which brings the story back to its starting point in the music hall, where a final pistol shot punctures the mystery permanently.

In the last two years, by making a specialty of melodrama, the English cinema industry sometimes appears to have taken its motto from the words of a song popular in the U.S. a year ago. ‘Here Come the British with a Bang, Bang.’ The Thirty-Nine Steps is the most effective demonstration to date of Director Alfred Hitchcock’s method of artful understatement and its success, which has already been sensational abroad, should be a lesson to his Hollywood imitators. The film is an adaptation of a novel written 20 years ago by John Buchan, now Lord Tweedsmuir, who next month will go to Canada as that Dominion’s Governor-General (TIME, Aug. 19). This high-placed connection made it possible for the British film industry to improve notably upon Hollywood methods of ballyhoo. The premiere of The Thirty-Nine Steps in London was preceded, not by a mere broadcast, but by a Gaumont-British banquet at which the guests of honour were Lord Tweedsmuir, Home Secretary Sir John Simon, Minister for Air Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister and their ladies.” –Time (Sept. 23, 1935)

It is easy for contemporary audiences to forget that The 39 Steps was the benchmark from which future Hitchcock films were judged for many years. (This lasted well into the director’s American career.) Today, it is too often ignored in favor of the director’s American work. This is unfortunate, because it is impossible to accurately examine Hitchcock’s creative evolution without examining his British thrillers.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The film related artwork isn’t among Criterion’s best designs, but it is reasonably attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated booklet featuring an essay entitled “Thirty-Nine Steps to Happiness” by David Cairns and information about the film’s transfer.

The disc’s menus utilize the iconic image of Hannay silencing Pamela under a bridge, and the film’s score accompanies the image.

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It is an elegant menu that is quite easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s booklet details their high definition transfer in more depth than any review might hope to discuss it:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35m fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.”

The result is an image that is less than perfect, but superior to other transfers of the film by quite some margin (at least to those available in North America). Criterion’s decision to place the film on a dual-layer disc has resulted into a film with less compression than one might expect with most Blu-ray releases. There is a nice layer of film grain lending an organic quality to the image that one expects from films made during this era. Detail is reasonably impressive and contrast is beautifully rendered as well. This may not be Criterion’s best image transfer, but it is much better than the film has received elsewhere.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

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

The result is a relatively clean sound transfer that features clear dialogue that isn’t buried beneath layers of noise and hiss. It is a rare moment when extremely light hiss makes itself heard, and these moments never become distracting. The dynamic range is rather limited, but this is to be expected with films of this era. There aren’t many (if any) distortions at the high end, nor are there any annoying dropouts to distract from one’s enjoyment of the film.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

This scholarly commentary by Marian Keane was featured on Criterion’s 1998 Criterion DVD of the film, so those who owned this edition of the film will know what to expect. Some of her theoretical insights sometimes seem a bit overreaching, and her delivery is certainly on the dry side. One wonder’s if her insights might have been more digestible in the video essay format. However, the track is quite informative and Keane’s discussion is rather articulate. Hitchcock fans should find the track well worth their time.

Hitchcock: The Early Years – (1080I) – (24:07)

This slightly dry British documentary covers Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-war career (or what is more often referred to as his British period). It features interviews with John Kennedy Melling (crime historian), Charles Barr (film historian/scholar), Hugh Stewart (film editor, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Teddy Joseph (third assistant director, Sabotage), Roy Ward Baker (second assistant director, The Lady Vanishes), and is narrated by David Bond. The bulk of this short retrospective is made up of clips from the director’s British filmography.

Those who have not yet discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s early British work should find this particular piece fascinating and informative, but those who have already familiarized themselves with these films might hope for something a bit more comprehensive.

Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock – (1080I) – (40:14)

Mike Scott’s excellent interview was produced in 1966 for British television. The original edited program has been lost, but the raw footage has been compiled and presented here. Many will consider this to be the highlight of the disc’s supplemental offerings. Any interview with Hitchcock is an amusing and educational experience, and this particular interview is no exception. The director discusses various areas of his career, but it is especially interesting to hear him talk about his early days in the British film industry.

The Borders of the Possible – (1080I) – (23:59)

Leonard Leff’s visual essay is an illustrated look at this adaptation of John Buchan’s famous novel and the development of Alfred Hitchcock’s style. The program is enhanced by extracts from the director’s interview with François Truffaut, film stills, artwork, and footage from The 39 Steps.

Excerpt from Truffaut/Hitchcock Interviews – (1080P) – (22:16)

Those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview will find this audio interview familiar. Helen G. Scott’s interpretation of both the questions and the answers might become tiresome for certain listeners, but the conversation itself is extremely interesting. This is a historical conversation between two cinematic giants, and most cinemaphiles will find it fascinating. A photo of the two great filmmakers (taken at the time of the interview) fills the screen throughout the length of this audio feature.

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

Oscar Friedrich Werndorff’s production sketches for the film are presented here along with production photographs in slide show form. One can compare the original drawings with the finished sets.

Lux Radio Theatre Presents “The 39 Steps” – (59:52)

Lux Radio Theatre’s 1937 audio production of The 39 Steps starred Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the leading roles. This adaptation borrowed ore heavily from the film than from Buchan’s original novel. It is interesting to hear other actors in the roles made famous by Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.

Screenshot 6

Final Words:

Those who have read “The Catcher in the Rye” will remember that this film was Phoebe Caulfield’s favorite film:

“Her favorite is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he’s running away from the cops and all, Phoebe’ll say right out loud in the movie–right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it–“Can you eat the herring?” She knows all the talk by heart. And when this professor in the picture, that’s really a German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the middle joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Phoebe beats him to it–she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.” J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

It must be said that this ten year old has fabulous taste. There is so much to love here, and if J.D Salinger recommends the film, why shouldn’t we? It is such a fun ride, and Criterion’s Blu-ray release gives us plenty of supplemental material to enhance our experience.

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/234-the-39-steps

Bridge.jpg

Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

Norah Baring (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Ivor Montagu (Working With Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide, January 01, 2002)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett, May 02, 2014)

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Blu-ray Review: Dial M for Murder

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: October 09, 2012

 Region: Region Free

Length: 1:45:24

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Alternate Audio:  

French Mono: Dolby Digital

German Mono: Dolby Digital

Italian Mono: Dolby Digital

Spanish Mono: Dolby Digital

Portuguese Mono: Dolby Digital

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

Ratio: 1.78:1

Bitrate: 29.92 Mbps

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

Title Screenshot

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

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

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

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

MARGOT
(A little worried)

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

MAX

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

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

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

MAX

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

MARGOT

Just according to how you felt?

MAX

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

MARGOT

Where do you get all your ideas from?

MAX

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

MARGOT

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

MAX

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

MARGOT

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

MAX

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

MARGOT

What do you mean?

MAX

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

MARGOT

Which is what? I mean what’s Why?

MAX

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

MARGOT

Sounds rather like sorting the week’s washing.

MAX

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

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

MAX

No . . . I’m all right, thanks.

MARGOT

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

MAX

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

MARGOT

Yes, of course.

MAX

Was that — Tony who answered?

MARGOT

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

MAX

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

MARGOT

Another crime story?

MAX

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

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

MARGOT
(Interrupting)

Max, before Tony comes I ought to explain something.

MAX

Yes?

MARGOT

I didn’t tell him anything about us.

MAX

Oh.

MARGOT

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

MAX

Well, that’s true enough.

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

MAX

I see.

MARGOT

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

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

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

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

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

Judgement

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

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

ANNOUNCER

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

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

(Phone rings)

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

TONY switches off radio and crosses to phone.

TONY
(Into phone)

Hullo!

PENDLETON
(Off stage, heard through receiver)

Mr. Wendice?

TONY

Yes?

PENDLETON

Pendleton here.

TONY

Oh, good afternoon.

PENDLETON

Have you decided about the letters?

TONY

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

PENDLETON

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

TONY

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

PENDLETON

I’m prepared to offer three fifty . . .

TONY

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

PENDLETON

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

TONY

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

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

Excuse me. I shall have to ring you back.

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

MAX

Hullo, Tony…”

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

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

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

Curtain”

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

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

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

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

Original Play Cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

3D

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

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

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

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

Marketing Announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Dial M Menu 1

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

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

Academy Ratio

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

Blu-ray Ratio

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

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

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

Screenshot 3.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Robert Cummings.jpg

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Hitchcock and Dial M – (SD) – (21:37)

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:38)

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

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

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

Blu-ray Review: Topaz

Topaz Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: November 05, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 143 min

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

Title Frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelangelo's

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

This shot from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Topaz's Masterpiece Collection Page

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

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

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

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

 Screenshot 3

Sound Quality:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Screensho 4

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

Alternate Endings – (SD) – (6 minutes)

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

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (3 minutes)

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

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

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

Production Photographs (SD) – (6 minutes)

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

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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

75th Anniversary Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Cohen Film Collection

 Release Date: May 12, 2015

 Region: Region A

Length: 1:39:39

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

 Subtitles: None

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.06 Mbps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Presentation:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

menu1menu 2menu 4menu 5

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

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Picture Quality:

 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maureen O'Hara as Mary

Maureen O’Hara as Mary

Sound Quality:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

 The audio also required a great deal of restoration.

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

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

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

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

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature-length Commentary Track by Jeremy Arnold

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

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

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

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

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

The restoration trailer is also included here.

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

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

Final Words:

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

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

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

Review by: Devon Powell

Book Review: Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films

Cover

Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky

Release Date: March 6, 2015

“Our aim has been to examine successive stages of Hitchcock’s career in a level-headed way, finding out as much as possible about the material from his early years in the industry that still remains lost and providing solid data about a wider range of lost or neglected or otherwise problematic material…

…Most of our research has come to focus on three periods, the first parts of three successive decades: the apprenticeship of the early 1920s; the unstable period of the early 1930s, involving a response to the new technologies of synchronized sound and of primitive television; and the early 1940s, during which Hitchcock did a wide range of topical war-effort work on both sides of the Atlantic in the margins of his Hollywood features…” –Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr (Introduction)

While recent books and articles discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s work tend to focus on the production and philosophy of his iconic Hollywood-era films like Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock Lost and Found moves beyond these seminal works to explore forgotten, incomplete, lost, and recovered productions from all stages of his career, including his early years in Britain. Authors Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr highlight Hitchcock’s neglected works, including various films and television productions that supplement the critical attention already conferred on his feature films.

“We do not spend time on any of the landmark films like Rear Window or The Birds, or give a full account of Hitchcock’s career. We focus instead on periods and productions that have hitherto been obscure, in the belief that, given his iconic status, any new information on Hitchcock is likely to be of interest, and that it is precisely the obscure elements, and the periods of struggle, that are of crucial importance in helping us to get a fresher and fuller understanding of just how Hitchcock came to achieve his very special status in film history.” –Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr

They also explore the director’s career during World War II, when he continued making high-profile features while also committing himself to a number of short war-effort projects on both sides of the Atlantic. Focusing on a range of forgotten but fascinating projects spanning five decades, Hitchcock Lost and Found offers a new, fuller perspective on the filmmaker’s career and achievements.

This might seem to some fans to be of marginal interest. After all, most of these films haven’t been widely seen by contemporary audiences. However, this book isn’t simply a useful tool for the Hitchcock scholar; it is a fascinating text for anyone the least bit interested in detailed ‘behind the scenes’ information about this director’s fascinating career. The obscurity of most of the films discussed only adds interest to an already enjoyable subject.

The depth of Kerzoncuf and Barr’s research will surprise many Hitchcock enthusiasts. The knowledge that they provide goes much deeper than anyone might expect. There is detailed information from many documented sources to support the analysis of each film discussed in the book. This level of detail is rare even in texts about the director’s more popular work.

This detail is organized into four basic units: “Before The Pleasure Garden: 1920-1925,” “The Early 1930s,” “The War Years,” and “After the War.” The first of these units focuses on Alfred Hitchcock’s apprentice years in the industry as it details each of the films that Hitchcock worked on in some capacity. It analyzes what function Hitchcock served (or likely served) on each of the films, and discusses how the work might have influenced the director (or how Hitchcock might have influenced the work). This is really no small task, and one finds themselves almost immediately intrigued.

“The Early 1930s” might be this reviewer’s personal favorite unit. Here readers are guided through the torrid transitional era when British studios were scrambling to keep up with the new technological advancement of sound. Many of these films are reasonably well known (Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, Murder), but have elements that have gone missing. New discoveries are revealed that enhance ones understanding of how these films fit into the context of Hitchcock’s career. There is also a reasonably in-depth comparison of Murder to its German sister, Mary that should interest any serious Hitchcock fan. This particular unit corrects quite a lot of previously published misinformation, and adds quite a bit of detail to the general knowledge that has already been revealed about these films. Other films from this period have been neglected by scholars. For example, Elstree Calling is finally discussed in a comprehensive manner. Kerzoncuf and Barr use documented information to discuss Hitchcock’s role in the creation of this film. This segment is especially interesting, because Hitchcock was never particularly interested in commenting on this particular film.

“The War Years” is also enlightening in its discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s participation in the creation of a number of wartime propaganda efforts in the early 1940s. Many fans are already quite aware that the director made two French propaganda shorts for the British Ministry of Information (Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache), and both shorts are actually available on home video. However, these films were unavailable for a great many years, and a comprehensive study of the creation of these shorts has never been adequately achieved. Kerzoncuf and Barr remedy this by offering a wealth of documented knowledge that is supplemented by interviews. The most significant interview for this section was with Janique Joelle, who played a pivotal role in Bon Voyage. Joelle provides an extremely lucid and detailed account of working with the director on this short. It is one of the book’s many highlights, and is certain to delight fans and scholars alike. However, the book has much more ground to cover. The authors give an account of every known wartime project that the director worked on, including the abandoned documentary about the Nazi concentration camps (usually referred to as Memory of the Camps).

“After the War” concentrates on a number of forgotten productions that Alfred Hitchcock appeared in between 1959 and 1969. Two of these efforts were “public service” efforts, and Hitchcock’s participation was mainly to lend his bankable name and image to these productions as a form of charity. The most interesting of these was Tactic (1959). This live television program was essentially a public service announcement concerning cancer diagnosis. To reveal further information here would rob you of the enjoyable experience of reading the more detailed account that appears in this excellent new text.

Just when everyone thought that the subject of Alfred Hitchcock had been picked clean to the bone, we are offered this incredibly enlightening effort. Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr have given fans and scholars an incredible gift. Their original research and lucid writing makes for an enjoyable reading experience. Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films is extremely easy to recommend without any qualifiers.

Review by: Devon Powell

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.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

Blu-ray Review: Marnie

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: September 03, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 2:10:30

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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: 33.99 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. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

Title

“This comes under the heading of rooting for the evildoer to succeed–because in all of us we have that eleventh commandment nagging us: ‘Thou shalt not be found out.’ The average person looking at someone doing evil or wrong wants the person to get away with it. There’s something that makes them say, ‘Look out! Look out! They’re coming!’ I think it’s the most amazing instinct-doesn’t matter how evil it is, you know. Can’t go as far as murder, but anything up to that point. The audience can’t bear the suspense of the person being discovered. ‘Hurry up! Quick! You’re going to be caught!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Before making The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock had purchased the film rights to Winston Graham’s novel, Marnie. He offered the title role to Princess Grace of Monaco, and she showed a great deal of interest in accepting the role. Joseph Stefano was recruited to work with Hitchcock on the treatment of Marnie. His early drafts were much different than the final product, and showed a lot of promise. Unfortunately, political interests in Monaco at the time forced Princess Grace to turn down the role (to both her and Alfred Hitchcock’s great disappointment).

Princess Grace wrote this letter to Hitchcock when it became clear that she would not be able to accept the role of Marnie.

Princess Grace wrote this letter to Hitchcock when it became clear that she would not be able to accept the role of Marnie.

This is the letter that Alfred Hitchcock wrote in response Princess Grace's letter.

This is the letter that Alfred Hitchcock wrote in response Princess Grace’s letter.

The loss of his leading actress altered Hitchcock’s plans for the film, and he decided to move ahead on another project instead. His next project ended up being The Birds. When it came time to focus on Marnie again, Stefano was busy working on The Outer Limits. This forced Hitchcock to work with Evan Hunter on a new treatment for Marnie (with ‘Tippi’ Hedren in mind for the difficult title role).

“We discussed Marnie on the sixty-mile ride to and from location [during the production of The Birds]. We discussed Marnie during lulls in the shooting, and during lunch, and during dinner every night. We discussed Marnie interminably.

There was one scene in the book that bothered me. ‘Which scene is that?’ Hitch asked. He knew which scene it was. ‘The scene where he rapes her on her wedding night.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ Hitch said. ‘That’ll be fine.’ I knew it wouldn’t.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Despite his reservations, Hunter continued to do research in order to enhance the story. He even met with a psychologist in order to lend a level of authenticity and accuracy to his writing.

“…My session with the psychologist proved most rewarding. I now understand things happening in the book (Winston Graham was either using a case history, or else was intuitively correct) and can cope with our dear Marnie very well indeed. You will be interested to learn that our psychologist felt the ending we worked out – concerning Marnie’s trauma – was a more valid one than the one in the book. So it’s full speed ahead with our drunken sailor and our intervening mother and, oh, all sorts of Oedipal undertones and overtones.

I am picking up a book on screen memory this afternoon. I understand the phenomenon quite well in its simplest terms, but I want to go into it a little more deeply in case I decide to explain it to an audience at some point in the picture. In any case, I learned some exciting things which will provide us with a double twist on the trauma. I’m not anticipating any trouble at all…” –Evan Hunter (Letter to Hitchcock as related in Me and Hitch)

The screen memory concept was jettisoned later in favor of what Hunter later called “bargain-basement explanation of Marnie’s compulsive thievery and frigidity.” Apparently, Hunter wasn’t particularly adept at picking up on Hitchcock’s subtle implications that the rape scene would in fact remain in the film, and he continued to force the issue.

“I told him that I did not want to write that scene as he had outlined it. I told him we would lose all sympathy for the male lead if he rapes his own wife on their honeymoon. I told him we can see the girl isn’t being coy or modest, she’s terrified, she’s trembling, and the reasons for this come out in the later psychiatric sessions. I told him if the man really loved her he would take her in his arms and comfort her gently and tell her they’d work it out, don’t be frightened, everything will be alright. I told him that’s how I thought the scene should go.

Hitchcock held up is hands the way directors do when they’re framing a shot. Palms out, fingers together, thumbs extended and touching to form a perfect square. Moving his hands toward my face, like a camera coming in for a close shot, he said, ‘Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want the camera right on her face.’” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hitchcock didn’t want the traditional sympathetic hero. He wanted his male lead to be as disturbed as his female lead. This is what makes the film interesting. Hitchcock’s attempt to shock Hunter was likely an attempt to drive home the fact that he wanted the rape included in the script. One wonders why Hunter continued to write two versions of the scene after Hitchcock’s intentions were made so abundantly clear. The writer would attempt to explain himself in a letter to the director that was included with the finished script.

“Dear Hitch,

Here is Marnie, which I believe has shaped up very well. There are a few things I would like to call your attention, however, since they are deviations from the story as we discussed it. I found that some of our story line simply would not work in the writing, and I adjusted the screenplay accordingly.

The major change I made concerns the honeymoon night. You will notice that there are two versions of this sequence in the script; one in white, one in yellow. The yellow version is the sequence as we discussed it, complete with the poolside scene and the rape. I wrote and rewrote and polished and re-polished this sequence, but something about it continued to disturb me. I finally wrote the white version – which is the version I would like to see in the film.

I know you are fond of the entire honeymoon sequence as we discussed it, Hitch, but let me tell you what I felt was wrong with it, and how I attempted to bring it into a truer perspective.

To begin with, Marnie’s attitude was misleading. We were asking an audience to believe that putting off Mark was on her mind from the top of the scene. This makes her frigidity a cold-blooded thing (no pun intended) rather than something she cannot help. She can respond to warmth and gentleness, she can except lovemaking – until it gets serious. Which brings us to a further examination; WHY DOES MARNIE MARRY HIM?

The answer is simple: she loves him. She may think she is marrying him to avoid the police, but she really does love him (as we bring out at the picture’s end). It is only her deep emotional disturbance that makes it impossible for her to accept his love.

I have, therefore, written a rather playful honeymoon night scene, showing Marnie in a gay and likable mood, a bit giggly (we have never seen her this way in the picture before), playing our entire Garrod’s exposition as a warm love scene, which I think works. It is only when Mark’s intentions get serious, only when his love-making reminds her of that night long ago that she panics and pulls away. Her retreat is a curious thing and the audience – for the first time – realizes that something is seriously wrong with this girl. The scene is frightening, and it also provides a springboard for the later scene in which Mark suggests psychiatric help. To me, it is believable and sound. The way we discussed it was implausibility bordering on the burlesque.

Which brings us to the second major change. In the yellow version, I have done the rape sequence as we discussed it. In the white version, I have eliminated it entirely. I firmly believe it is out of place in the story. Mark is not that kind of person; Marnie is obviously troubled, and realizes it. Stanley Kowalski might rape her, but not Mark Rutland. Mark would do exactly what we see him do later on – he would seek the help of a psychiatrist. And, without an out-of-character rape, there was no need for the poolside discussion. The entire honeymoon sequence now takes place on a single night.

Marnie’s panic is followed immediately by her suicide attempt. There is no long stage wait. I am convinced that the rape has no place in the sequence, Hitch, and I hope you will agree and throw away the yellow pages. I will be waiting to hear from you, and expecting to come west whenever you say…” –Evan Hunter (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock as relayed in Me and Hitch)

Obviously, this was Hunter’s death blow. Alfred Hitchcock responded to his letter on April 10, 1963.

“Dear Evan,

I have been through the script and feel there is still a lot of work to do on it. Unfortunately, I feel that I have gone stale on it and think it will have to be put aside for a little while until I can decide what to do about it. It may be it needs a fresh mind altogether, and this probably will have to be the next procedure.

I’m sorry I couldn’t give you any better news than this, but there it is; and as I said above, it is going to need a lot of work to get it into a condition that will satisfy me.

Kindest Regards, Alfred J. Hitchcock” –Alfred Hitchcock (as printed in Me and Hitch)

This particular letter raises the question as to whether the differences involving the rape sequence were the only issues that Hitchcock had with Hunter’s script. There were certainly a number of changes made to the story after he was replaced by Jay Presson Allen. Whatever the case, On April 15, Hunter graciously responded to Hitchcock’s letter by offering to address any issues at whatever date was convenient to Hitchcock.

“…Certainly any problems which may exist in the script can be remedied after discussion. And perhaps some of these will be found to be less grave than they now appear once the situation you mention, your temporary feeling of staleness toward the project, has been overcome.

I do completely agree that it would be a good idea to put the project aside until we can both return to it with fresh minds. I imagine this will be when you’ve completed promotional work on The Birds. But whenever you’re ready, I’ll do my utmost, as always, to stop work at once on other projects so that we may complete Marnie to our mutual satisfaction. It goes without saying that this project, in addition to any business considerations, has come to mean a great deal to me personally…” –Evan Hunter (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock as relayed in Me and Hitch)

Alfred Hitchcock had made up his mind. He would hire a new screenwriter. However, it is likely that the director didn’t intend to change the script quite as much as he ended up doing until after Jay Presson Allen was hired as the film’s third screenwriter.

“As late as April 1963, Hitchcock fully intended to use Hunter’s script – with the significant exception of his ‘honeymoon’ scene that omitted the ‘rape.’ Yet once he fired Hunter and moved on to Allen, he was obviously prepared to make a number of critical changes to the story as script development proceeded.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

These changes included an expansion, and re-working of the character of Mark. It also included a change to the trauma that was the seed for Marnie’s psychological issues. A male rival for Mark (named Terry) was omitted, as was a psychologist. Diana Baker’s “Lil” was added as a rival for Marnie. Other small changes were also made. However, some elements of the script stayed the same.

“When Jay Presson Allen was hired to work on the project in June 1963, she was given a scene synopsis by Hitchcock that came directly from Hunter’s script, though she was never told that it came from a previous writer – as was also the case when Hunter was given a treatment for Marnie that he did not know was based on one by Joseph Stefano. Actual scenes from Hunter’s script, and verbatim dialogue appear in Allen’s screenplay.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Allen’s re-working of Mark’s character gave the script a different focus. Mark was now a more disturbing hero than the character in previous scripts. He is very much a hunter, and Marnie is his prey. This is even made obvious in the dialogue. These changes made the honeymoon ‘rape’ make more sense, and the dynamic between the two characters much more interesting (and perverse).

Marnie was universally panned by critics and audiences alike when it was unleashed upon the cinema going public. Variety’s poorly worded review wasn’t scathing, but obviously had little appreciation for the film.

Marnie is the character study of a thief and a liar, but what makes her tick remains clouded even after a climax reckoned to be shocking but somewhat missing its point…

…Hedren, undertaking role originally offered Grace Kelly for a resumption of her screen career, lends credence to a part never sympathetic. It’s a difficult assignment which she fulfills satisfactorily, although Hitchcock seldom permits her a change of pace which would have made her character more interesting. Connery handles himself convincingly, but here, again, greater interest would have resulted from greater facets of character as he attempts to explore femme’s unexplained past.” –Variety (December 31, 1963)

The Times actually published a review that seems more positive than negative, but it is not without the usual hint of condescension. For instance, the writer couldn’t help but take a few jab at the artificiality of the sets, and the implausibility of certain situations.

“The trouble with being so sensible as Mr. Alfred Hitchcock about the theory of film-making and such attendant problems as the proper use of actors and stars is that people are likely to start asking a lot of awkward questions when you seem not to be putting your eminently sound principles into practice.

The main difficulty with Marnie is that the story — which concerns a compulsive thief, with a psychologically mixed-up part — really calls either for a star, one of those great larger-than-life personalities who demand that we believe in them whatever the part they are playing, or for an expressive, resourceful actress. Miss ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Mr. Hitchcock’s discovery of The Birds, is good-looking and assured, but she is really neither a star nor an actress of much range; and consequently Mr. Hitchcock has to stop in his direction to some devices straight out of Griffith (the wild will-she-won’t-she cross-cutting and zooming in and out from the money in the climactic temptation scene, for instance) in order to convey somehow what, his central player patently should be conveying and is not.

Given this basic misfortune, though, the film manages remarkably well. To begin with, its story, based on a novel by Mr. Winston Graham, is gripping and very well told, without the imbalances and irrelevancies of The Birds. It is easy to see why the plot-outline should have taken Mr. Hitchcock’s fancy: it is essentially Spellbound turned inside out, with this time a male psychiatrist (amateur) fighting to save the female patient he loves, and once more a traumatic experience in childhood to be uncovered in the final settling of accounts. Moreover, the film has plenty of material for the nuttier French Hitchcock enthusiasts: a dash of amour fou in the hero’s obsessive devotion to a beloved he knows from the outset to be almost impossible; lots and lots about the crucial word which can set free (shades of Under Capricorn) and the exchange of culpability.

All in all a field-day for enthusiasts, in fact, and over two hours of very glossy entertainment for anyone else. As Marnie’s husband-cum-psychiatrist Mr. Sean Connery escapes quite effectively from the James Bond stereotype, and Miss Hedren has at least the right physical qualifications for her role. The surroundings in which the action takes place are, unexpectedly again after the hep-ness of Mr. Hitchcock’s recent work, almost prewar in their bland acceptance of studio-built exteriors — the set of the street in which Marnie’s mother lives is like something Trauner might have cooked up for Carné in the good old days — and Mr. Bernard Herrmann’s surging, emotional score and the straightforward, classily printed credits all convey the same reassuring image. So much so that even the film’s absurdities are rather endearing; perhaps after all it is not really so important to consider little details like why, if Marnie comes over all funny every time she see the colour red, she can apparently manage nevertheless to apply her own lipstick every day without a qualm. In this good old Hitchcock dream world cool acceptance of such things is all part of the game.” -The Times (July 09, 1964)

Eugene Archer’s review for the New York Times follows a similar pattern.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie is at once a fascinating study of a sexual relationship and the master’s most disappointing film in years…

…Certainly the material is there. In his ladylike heroine, who changes her hairdo every time she cracks a safe, Mr. Hitchcock has as provocative a character as he has ever created. When Sean Connery, playing a singularly open-minded employer, catches the angelic ‘Tippi’ Hedren with a suitcase full of company funds, he is naturally surprised — and interested.

The answers, when they come, are shocking and psychologically sound, as one might expect from the craftsman who offered the last word on modern American motherhood in Psycho. Mr. Hitchcock is not a man to let us down in the deeper regions of the filmic symbolism. His villain once again is Mama, but this time the director is making a comment on the Yankee Puritan hangover and the twisted society it leaves in its wake.

What he has to say about it is devastating. For Marnie, in her own warped self-analysis, is a liar, a thief, a tease — but still as chaste as ‘Mama said.’

Her obsessed lover who probes into this mystifying psyche does so less to cure her than to indulge in his own neuroses. When she accuses him of being pretty sick himself; the best reply he can muster is a wry, ‘I never said I was perfect.’

This Hitchcockian relationship, explored in sumptuous color, is reminiscent of such memorably maladjusted lovers as Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious or James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window. And there’s the rub.

Hitchcock has taken a pair of attractive and promising young players, Miss Hedren and Mr. Connery, and forced them into roles that cry for the talents of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Both work commendably and well — but their inexperience shows.

Why, one wonders, did the most reliable of the ‘big star’ directors — a man whose least consequential stories have always had the benefit of the most illustrious players — choose relative newcomers for such demanding assignments? Economy, perhaps? If so, Mr. Hitchcock must plead guilty to pound foolishness, for Marnie is a clear miss.

Nor is the casting — which extends to astonishingly inadequate acting in subordinate roles — its only problem. For once, the best technician in the business has faltered where he has always been strongest — in his style. Not only is Marnie burdened with the most glaringly fake cardboard backdrops since Salvador Dali designed the dream sequences for Spellbound, but the timing of key suspense scenes is sadly askew. Mr. Hitchcock has always been a trickster, but sleight of hand is spoiled when the magician lets the trickery show.

Curiously he has also settled for an inexplicably amateurish script, which reduces this potent material to instant psychiatry — complete with a flashback ‘explanation scene’ harking back to vintage Joan Crawford and enough character exposition to stagger the most dedicated genealogist. Poor Diane Baker, gratuitously inserted as a mystifying ‘menace,’ does nothing more than enunciate imitation Jean Kerr witticisms (‘I’m queer for liars’) while swirling about in Hollywood hostess gowns. At one point, just to make sure no one misunderstands Marnie’s problem, the script provides the title of her lover’s bedside reading matter – ‘Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female.’ Get it?

A strong suspicion arises that Mr. Hitchcock is taking himself too seriously — perhaps the result of listening to too many esoteric admirers. Granted that it’s still Hitchcock — and that’s a lot — dispensing with the best in acting, writing and even technique is sheer indulgence. When a director decides he’s so gifted that all he needs is himself, he’d better watch out.” -Eugene Archer (New York Times, July 23, 1964)

Today opinion is split between those that believe it is one of the director’s greatest achievements, and those that dislike the film. Those who fall into the latter category seem to feel that the film’s artifice is distracting. Audiences that adore the film believe that this artifice is appropriate (and part of the film’s language). However, popular opinion about the film seems to improve with each passing year.

Marnie was still looked upon as inferior when the director’s career was winding down during the seventies. Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky certainly weren’t kind to the film in their book of essays about Hitchcock’s output.

“Even if you excuse the cardboard sets that look like cardboard sets, even if you excuse the melodramatic camera angles, even if you excuse the film’s many other inadequacies – you are still left with Tippi Hedren.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Whatever one’s opinion, it is difficult not to be struck by the perverse romance, and by the fact that both Mark and Marnie are equally disturbed individuals. These elements make for an intriguing film, and the expressionism captivates one’s imagination. Marnie moves the audience in a manner that goes beyond intelligence. It is a purely emotional experience, but manages to stimulate ones intellect. This is a rare combination, and the film deserves attention (even it isn’t perfect).

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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.

Marnie MenuMarnie Menu 2Marnie Menu 2Marnie Menu 4

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Picture Quality:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer leaves much to be desired. This is a step up from the DVD because of the added resolution, and superior detail that it showcases. However, few will argue that the issues with this transfer make it questionable as to whether an upgrade is necessary if one already owns the DVD release. The texture of the film is rather grainy, which would be perfectly fine if the grain level was kept consistent. Colors also shift more than one might prefer (even if black levels are always attractive and seem to be accurate). The blemishes on Universal’s transfer might very well be a result of the source print, but it seems like a few digital anomalies popped up as well.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix is superior to the picture transfer. There isn’t anything to criticize here. Dialogue is well prioritized, and Bernard Herrmann’s score is given more room to breathe here than on the compressed track included on the DVD releases. Noise is never an issue here either. The track will not give sound systems much of a workout, but it represents Marnie’s original sound mix with a certain amount of grace.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Trouble with Marnie – (SD) – (58:26)

Laurent Bouzereau’s The Trouble with Marnie is an extremely comprehensive ‘behind the scenes’ look at the creation of one of Hitchcock’s most interesting works. It is one of the best documentaries available about the creation of a Hitchcock film. (Bouzereau’s documentaries on Psycho and The Birds are superior). The program includes interviews with ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Evan Hunter, Jay Presson Allen, Joseph Stefano, Louise Latham, Diane Baker, Robert F. Boyle, Hilton A. Green, Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, Robin Wood, Howard Smit, and Steven Smith. Each party relays their personal memories about the production, or adds critical insights about the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (4:44)

Marnie’s theatrical trailer features Alfred Hitchcock discussing the film in his trademark fashion. This isn’t the best trailer for a Hitchcock film, but it is certainly entertaining.

The Marnie Archives – (SD) – (9:01)

The Marnie Archives is essentially a still gallery featuring posters, stills, ‘behind the scenes’ photographs, and print advertisements.

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Final Words:

Marnie is an essential film to study for anyone that wishes to understand the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It is really too bad that Universal give this classic film the respect that it deserves with this release.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Materials

Alfred Hitchcock Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Review (Variety, December 31, 1963)

Review (The Times, July 09, 1964)

Eugene Archer (New York Times, July 23, 1964)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

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

Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Tony Lee Moral (Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie)

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

For more information about Marnie, check out Tony Lee Moral’s excellent book, “Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie.”

Blu-ray Review: Saboteur

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Book Review: Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System

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Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Release Date: September 11, 2014

“Rarely when authors talk about Hitchcock’s filmmaking team do they address the contributions of his actors. There is little or no serious attention paid to them or any in-depth study of their contributions to his films… While actors are often the focus of the gossip surrounding Hitchcock’s life, the contributions and performances given are rarely approached with any seriousness…

…The memorable statement on livestock is an ironic one considering just how many iconic performances by some of Hollywood’s greatest stars he directed.” –Lesley L.Coffin (Introduction to “Hitchcock’s Stars”)

Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System tackles a topic that is rarely discussed in any amount of detail. Coffin’s text attempts to shed new light on Hitchcock’s method of using actors (or “stars”) in interesting ways throughout his career in Hollywood. Each chapter covers a different film. The early British period is ignored entirely, instead focusing only on the director’s career in the Hollywood studio system (1940-1976). Each of the director’s films from this period is discussed, with the notable exceptions being Topaz and Frenzy.

Coffin claims that she excludes these films because they weren’t made in American studios, and were shot outside of America (using foreign actors). This leads us to one of the book’s major problems. Her claim that Torn Curtain was Hitchcock’s final film for Universal is simply incorrect. Topaz would have never been made if Universal had not urged Hitchcock to make the film (instead of the un-produced Kaleidoscope/Frenzy project). It was very much a “Hollywood” production. While there was indeed a great deal of location work; some of this location work was in America. A good deal of work was also done in the studio. Frenzy was also produced for Universal (though it was shot in London with a British cast and crew). There are many other factual errors in the book that mar the text. This issue usually stems from her chosen sources. However, at times Coffin uses conjecture presented as fact. This is rather unfortunate, because her writing is fluid and enjoyable.

Many of the interesting discoveries found within the text might very well be true, but they come from “gossip columns” and similar sources from the period. These columns are interesting, but often misleading. Studios often fed false information to columnists (such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons). This gave the studio free publicity, and allowed them to keep the actual details from the public. It was also common for these columnists to invent information when sources couldn’t give them anything to write about. This means that some of these interesting tidbits of information might or might not be true. Coffin never questions the validity of her sources (or attempts to back them up with a second source). This is a small complaint, but the unquestioning reader may be led astray by some of this information.

Coffin’s knowledge of Hitchcock seems to stem mostly from texts by Donald Spoto. Because she never questions the validity of these sources (despite the fact that some of her sources directly contradict Spoto), her thesis is led astray. There are times that her own preoccupations overwhelm a wealth of other information that is never addressed. This means that the reader never has an objective view of the subject being discussed. (To be fair, this approach is almost certainly intentional.)

There is a lot to like about Coffin’s text, and the book was a noble undertaking. It is a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly nice to see that this particular topic is finally receiving a book-length treatment. It simply falls short of being absolutely “essential.”

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:59:29

Video: 1080P AVC (MPEG-4)

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

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.37 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 disc also comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

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“A very important thing about The Birds: I never raised the point, ‘Can it be done?’ Because then it would never have been made. Any technician would have said ‘impossible.’ So I didn’t even bring that up, I simply said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ No one will ever realize that had the pioneering technical work on it not been attempted, the film would not have been made. Cleopatra or Ben Hur is nothing to this–just quantities of people and scenery. Just what the bird trainer has done is phenomenal. Look at the way the crows chase the children down the street, dive all around them, land on their backs. It took days to organize those birds on the hood of the car and to make them fly away at the right time. The Birds could easily have cost $5,000,000 if Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn’t been technicians ourselves.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

INTRODUCTION:

One expects a text on The Birds to focus on the dynamics of the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his protégé, ‘Tippi Hedren.’ Unfortunately anything written about this relationship would be trumped by more famous texts by Donald Spoto. However, it would be a mistake to take Spoto’s account into consideration without looking at more responsible accounts that use evidence instead of hearsay and wild theory. The trouble with a Spoto text is that he is perfectly willing to ignore evidence that disputes his theories. Admittedly, Hitchcock’s publicity persona doesn’t help his case (and probably planted these theories). A 1962 article in The Hollywood Reporter announcing Hitchcock’s new contract player is an example of publicity that (purposefully) feeds into public perception.

“…In The Birds, I am introducing another young lady who happens to be blonde, Miss Tippi Hedren. But I am happy to say she is not the spectacular type of blonde who flaunts her sex. It is important to distinguish between the big, bosomy blonde and the ladylike blonde with the touch of elegance, whose sex must be discovered.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

It is probably Hitchcock’s fault if contemporary perception of the director is based on his publicity persona, but intelligent people should at least attempt to separate his persona from reality. To do this, one needs hard evidence rather than interviews and publicity items (especially if the interviewee is unreliable). Therefore, this article prefers to focus on the working relationship between Evan Hunter and Alfred Hitchcock, the prodigious special effects, and the film’s reception.

THE GENESIS

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is considered by many people to be one of the director’s best films. This is likely do to the fact that it is a considerable technical achievement, and paved the way for advancements in special effects photography. It is certainly an important film, but this reviewer does not include it on his list of best Hitchcock films. It is a flawed work that has moments of brilliance. It is the opinion of this reviewer that much of what is wrong with the film can be traced to the film’s script.

It was certainly a compelling concept, and Daphne du Maurier’s short story was a wonderful mood piece. Hitchcock probably became aware of the story when it was published in one of his anthologies. However, Hitchcock probably gained much of his motivation for making the film from an article in the “Santa Cruz Sentinel.” The article discussed a real life account of bird attacks. It was a signal to Hitchcock that The Birds should be his next film.

WRITING WITH EVAN HUNTER

Alfred Hitchcock originally asked Joseph Stefano to work with him on the script, but Stefano declined to participate. One can only speculate as to why Hitchcock eventually turned to Evan Hunter, but two of Hunter’s stories (“Number Twenty-Two” and “Vicious Circle“) had been made into episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957, and he had adapted the teleplay for “Appointment at Eleven” in 1959.

“[Appointment at Eleven] was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o’clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid’s drunk and trying to get drunker and obnoxious, and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.

This may have been in Hitch’s mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there’s no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some ‘artistic respectability’ with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock often preferred working with novelists and playwrights instead of screenwriters, so the decision to hire a novelist for The Birds wasn’t as unique as Hunter implies.

“The call came from my agent toward the end of August. I thought at first that Joan Harrison wanted me to adapt another story for Hitch’s TV show. But no, it seemed Hitch had purchased motion picture rights to a Daphne Du Maurier novella titled The Birds, and he wanted me to write the screenplay for the movie he planned to make from it. I told my agent I would have to read the story before I decided. In truth, for the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock on a feature film, I would have agreed to do a screenplay based on the Bronx telephone book.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Of course, Hitchcock planned to expand upon the premise of the original story.

“…When I spoke with [Hitchcock], he said ‘forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.’ He said, ‘That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.’ In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

It is easy to understand why Hitchcock vetoed Hunter’s original two ideas, both of which would have resulted in a very different picture.

“…The first of these was to add a murder mystery to the basic premise of birds attacking humans, an idea I still like. But Hitch felt this would muddy the waters and rob suspense from the real story we wanted to tell. The second was about a new schoolteacher who provokes the scorn of the locals when unexplained bird attacks start shortly after her arrival in town. In the eventual movie; the school teacher survived (but not for long) in the presence of Annie Hayworth. In the movie, the town’s suspicion and anger surfaces in the tides restaurant scene. But Hitch did not want a schoolteacher for his lead; he needed someone more sophisticated and glamorous…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Much of the trouble with the film lies in the approach that Hitchcock and Hunter agreed upon.

“I take full credit – or blame, as the case may be – for what I suggested to Hitch that afternoon: a screwball comedy that gradually turns into stark terror. The idea appealed to him at once. I think he saw it as a challenge equal to the one the birds themselves presented. I think, too, that he saw in it a way of combining his vaunted sense of humor with the calculated horror he had used to great effect in Psycho. …My own reference points were the black and white comedies I’d grown up with in the forties…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

One imagines that Hitchcock found another misleading first act appealing, but the “screwball comedy” opening isn’t nearly as interesting as the first 45 minutes of Psycho (1960). The tone of a “screwball comedy” is also very much at odds with the tone of a horror film. One could argue that there was a sufficient amount of humor in Psycho (1960), but gallows humor and madcap comedy are two very different things.

“When I first suggested ‘screwball comedy becomes terror,’ Hitch should have said ‘That is the worst idea I have ever heard in my life. Let’s move on.’ Instead, we marched ahead confidently, blithely trying to graft upon Du Maurier’s simple tale of apocalyptic terror a slick story about two improbable lovers confronted with an even more improbable situation – birds attacking humans.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hitchcock’s working methods with Hunter were similar to those that he employed with most of his other writers.

“… I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say ‘Tell me the story so far,’ and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That’s the first bird attack… But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock’s influence over the details and the final shape of the screenplay is evident in a lengthy letter that the director wrote to Hunter after reading the first draft. (This is after Hitchcock and Hunter worked out the story and the structure of the film in Hitchcock’s office.)

“…I have had the opportunity of going over the script a couple of times and in consequence, would like to make some further observations…

…The first general impression is that the script is way too long. This, of course, I know you are already aware of. However the consensus seems to indicate that it is the front part of the script that needs some drastic pruning. I will suggest some ideas to you later on in this letter.

Now the next prevalent comment I have heard is that both the girl and the young man seem insufficiently characterized. In endeavoring to analyze this criticism, I have gathered the impression ‘there doesn’t seem to be any particular feature about the young man himself to warrant the girl going to all the trouble she does in delivering a couple of love birds.’

Another comment about him was obviously misconstrued from the wording in the script – some people looked upon him as a shy, awkward young man. Now I think this was caused because the reader failed to appreciate the fact that his manner was awkward only because in our script he behaves self-consciously about wanting to purchase such things as ‘love birds’. When I reflected upon this, it looked to me as though the joke about buying love birds and the young man’s self-consciousness about it wouldn’t come off. In other words, people would say, ‘What’s difficult about buying a pair of love birds?’ After all, they are not contraceptives! …It could be that the whole scene is too mild for the young man to make any sharp impression on the girl at all.

Evan, would you please permit me to interpose here with an observation that I think we should look out for in this script and this scene in the bird shop is a fair example of what I mean. We run the risk of having in a picture what I call ‘no scene’ scenes. By this I mean that the little sequence might have narrative value but in itself is un-dramatic. It very obviously lacks shape and it doesn’t within itself have a climax as a scene on the stage might…

…Now we have a number of these in our present script. For example, in the newspaper office in the scene between Melanie and her father I feel the audience will get nothing much out of the scene. In fact, one of the comments made was that the father was just a stock figure whose relationship with his daughter seems fairly conventional.

Now at Bodega Bay I can clearly see that we do have one or two scenes with no particular shape. These are scenes of Melanie buying temporary garments and going to the hotel for a room. They really accomplish very little and account for some of the excessive length in the front part of the picture. I feel sure these could be eliminated so that the scene when she presents herself at the school teacher’s house with only a paper bag can be dramatically capitalized. This is to say that she explains her purchases and wish for a room – after the fact.

But here again her relationship with the young man must have a very solid premise for her going to the trouble of taking a room for the night…

…Now, Evan, there is, I am sorry to say, an almost unanimous comment that the interior of the church scene should go because, apparently to the script reader, the story does not progress at all. The scene outside the church, of course, serves a very good purpose for us. It brings our couple together again and sets up the children’s party.

Incidentally, at the children’s party I think Bob Boyle, our production man, had quite an interesting thought that it would be more interesting and, I am inclined to agree with him, that the bird attack might take place during the blind-man’s buff sequence so that we get a little blindfolded girl attacked. Of course, we could have the entrance of the cake about the same time.

Generally speaking, Evan, the rest of it seems to be in pretty good shape except perhaps for some pruning here and there.

Now for some other thoughts; in order to keep the suspense alive from the very beginning I do think we ought to punctuate the sequences with some more positive ideas that will keep the audience a little on edge in the matter of ‘birds’. And, I think we could start this right from the very beginning.

I know you had an idea of this when you had Melanie walking down the street and a flock of pigeons fluttered away. Now an audience might get some significance in this or they may not but somehow I think if we are going to put in ideas of this nature they should be a little less blurred. For example: How would it be to open the picture on a San Francisco street with a series of cuts of upturned faces, some stationary, others moving slowly along, and what they are looking at is an unusual number of sea gulls flying above the buildings of the city. We could continue the upturned faces until at last we come to Melanie also looking up and pan her right into the bird shop where she could make some comment to the woman inside who dismisses it with a remark to the effect that when the weather is bad at sea they often get driven inland. Another spot that occurs to me where we could have a sharp moment – at the end of the night scene between Annie and Melanie there could be the sound of a thump on the front door. They open it to find a dead bird lying there and the scene could fade out on this. This will also tie in with Annie’s last line in the scene. There are probably some other spots which lend themselves to this kind of treatment in the earlier part of the script. Incidentally, I still think that at some moment Annie should see the cut on Melanie’s head.

You know I’ve often wondered that the Audubon Society’s attitude might be to this picture. And if we have any fears that they might be a little ‘frowning’ we might find a spot towards the end where Kathy theorizes about ‘It’s all because we put them in cages, we shoot them down, we eat them, etc.’ This, of course, leaves only one other question as to whether the Audubon Society will frown at the birds having a revengeful nature!

Well, Evan, there you are. Until we have further conversations these are all the things that I can think to put down. Naturally there may be a few more things to be done. I’m still wondering whether anything of a thematic nature should go into the script. I’m sure we are going to be asked again and again, especially by the morons, ‘Why are they doing it?’ …” –Alfred Hitchcock (Letter to Evan Hunter, as printed in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

It is worth noting that all of Hitchcock’s notes on the rough draft proved to shape the final film. The scenes that he suggested to be cut were omitted, and the additions that Hitchcock suggested are included in the final film. Outside parties were consulted about the script. Both men found the script to be lacking sufficient characterization. Hitchcock would worry about these problems well into the film’s production. Of course, Evan Hunter was rather irritated with these outsiders having anything to do with the outcome of the script.

“What I did not know was that Hitch had already solicited comment on the script from Hume Cronyn, an actor who had received ‘adaptation’ credit on two of Hitch’s previous films, Rope in 1948 and Under Capricorn in 1949. Mr. Cronyn’s comments had arrived before my revisions. In his letter of January 13, 1962, he suggested that there was ‘still room for improvement in the development and relationship of the principal characters. The implied arrogance, silliness, and selfishness of the early Melanie may need heightening so that the change to consideration, responsibility, and maturity are more marked – and more enduring.

He was merely the first who – without my knowledge or consent – stuck his finger in the concept and his foot in the whorehouse door.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Alfred Hitchcock also sought the opinion of V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett’s involvement was more pronounced than Cronyn’s, and Hunter’s ego was sufficiently bruised by his influence.

“Unknown to me, Hitch had already sent the script of The Birds to an old friend of his, V.S. Pritchett, a short story writer who used to be the book review editor for the ‘New Statesman.’ …Pritchett wrote back. He said that audiences of The Birds would get the impression that they are in two different stories – in this case a light comedy and a terror tale – that do not weld together. While Hitch pondered this startling revelation that merely defined the entire approach to the film, he asked me to take another look at the final scene, with an eye towards giving it a deeper meaning and a stronger purpose.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter certainly had a valid point when he commented that Pritchett “merely defined the entire approach to the film.” However, it might have been a red flag to Hitchcock that this approach wasn’t working (at least not in the script’s then-current state).

PRITCHETT & ‘THE SAND DUNES’

Pritchett’s involvement would again aggravate Hunter during the film’s production.

“One morning Rod Taylor came to me. ‘Did you write this scene?’ he asked, and handed me some pages. I read the scene. It takes place on a hill above the Brenner house, just prior to the bird attack on the children’s birthday party. Melanie and Mitch are alone. Miraculously, he has a martini pitcher and long-stemmed martini glasses with him. He pours, they drink. Then Melanie pours out her heart… I was happy to tell Rod I had definitely not written that scene, and had not in fact seen those pages until the moment he’d handed them to me. ‘Well, were shooting it this morning,’ he said. Over my dead body, I thought, and went to find Hitch.

He was in the production trailer with Peggy. I asked if I might talk to him privately, and then showed him the scene Rod had given me. I said I didn’t know who’d written it but that it was totally inept and devoid of any craftsmanship, that no single speech in it logically followed the speech preceding it, that a first-year film student at UCLA could write a better scene, and that I would be thoroughly embarrassed if it were to appear in a movie with my name as screenwriter.

Hitch did a straight-faced little take. Then he said, ‘Are you going to trust me or a two bit actor?’ They shot the scene that morning. It is in the picture.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter credits Hitchcock for writing the scene, but the scene was in fact written by V.S. Pritchett. The scene attempts to give Melanie additional characterization (which was admittedly needed). Unfortunately, Pritchett’s approach is rather awkward.

THE DELETED SCENE

Many drastic changes were made to Hunter’s script during the film’s production. However, most of these changes were probably improvements. One significant case in point is the omission of a scene between Melanie and Mitch.

“…There was a love scene between the girl and the man that was eliminated. It took place after the mother went off to take the little girl to school. Melanie goes down, puts on her fur coat and sees the man burning the birds in the distance. She wanders off in his direction; she obviously wants to be with him. When he is through with his job of burning the birds, I showed him coming toward her and you can read on her face her desire to receive him. Then – suddenly – he turns around and goes into the house. What’s wrong? She’s disappointed and I put that in to stress that Melanie’s really keen on Mitch. A few minutes later he emerges from the house and says, ‘I’ve put a clean shirt on because the other one smelled of birds.’

Then we continued that scene in a light comedy note, with their speculations as to why the birds were behaving in that way. They joked about the fact that the birds have a leader, that he’s a sparrow perched on a platform addressing all the birds and saying to them, ‘Birds of the world, unite. You’ve nothing to lose but your feathers…

…The scene became more serious, winding up with a kiss. Then we went on to show the mother driving back from the farm, terribly agitated. She rolls up just as the couple is exchanging another kiss, and I put a slight wince in her expression. One doesn’t – at the time – know for sure whether that’s because she’s seen them in that embrace, but subsequent developments will indicate that was the reason. Now, since the love scene was suppressed, the dialogue in the following scene between the mother and Melanie is slightly different from what it was originally…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hunter was vocal about his objection to the scene’s omission.

“From what I understand, Hitch shot this scene. But he never used it, and its absence is sorely felt. Without this scene, no one in the film ever really questions why the birds are doing this, and if our leading characters aren’t even looking for answers, then the audience will demand them. Moreover, without the only scene in the picture that would have shown our screwball lovers finally kissing seriously and passionately, there is no climax – you should pardon the expression – to all their nutty sparring and running around. We haven’t the faintest clue as to why Mitch is suddenly calling her darling for the rest of the film. We are utterly baffled.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

To be fair, Hunter is overstating his case a bit. There are a handful of moments dedicated to the questioning of the reasons behind the bird attacks. The entire Tides Restaurant scene is devoted to this purpose. There is also at least one moment when Cathy asks why the birds are terrorizing them. It is certainly enough to get the point across to even the slowest member of an audience. It is also clear from the proceeding scenes that affection between Melanie and Mitch is growing. Film audiences are sophisticated enough to understand that there are a number of things that happen off camera. One gathers that Melanie and Mitch become friendlier towards one another while Lydia is at the Fawcett farm.

Hitchcock addressed his reasons for cutting the scene during his famous interview with François Truffaut.

“…I felt that the love interlude slowed down the story. Right along, I was concerned about the fact that the word-of-mouth rumors would make the public impatient. I was worried about the audience sitting through this part of the picture and thinking to itself, “Come on. Where are the birds? Let’s get on with it… Anyway, I felt that a prolonged love scene at that point might have irritated the public.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

IMPROVISATION

Such changes weren’t typical of Alfred Hitchcock. While the director normally preferred to have every minute detail planned well in advance, he found himself making many changes while shooting The Birds. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick discuss one example in their excellent book, “Scripting Hitchcock.”

“During production [Hitchcock] also created a scene that does not exist in the Hunter screenplay in which the unseen birds attack the Brenner House, one of the tensest, most frightening scenes in the film because the characters and the audience are forced to imagine the number and ferocity of the murderous attacks outside of the house as the threatening noise of the birds fills the soundtrack.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Hitchcock discussed the shooting of this scene in a number of interviews.

“I’ve always been afraid of improvising on the set because, although one might have the time to get a new idea, there isn’t sufficient time in the studio to examine the value of such an idea. There are too many crew people around… Something happened that was altogether new in my experience: I began to study the scenario as we went along, and I saw that there were weaknesses in it. This emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me.

I began to improvise. For instance, the whole scene of the outside attack on the house by birds that are not seen was done spontaneously, right on the set. I’d almost never done anything like that before, but I made up my mind and quickly designed the movements of the people inside the room. I decided that the mother and the little girl would dart around to search for shelter. There was no place to run for cover, so I made them move about in contradictory directions, a little like rats scurrying into corners.

I deliberately shot Melanie Daniels from a distance because I wanted to make it clear that she was recoiling from nothing at all. What could she be drawing back from? She cringes back into the sofa and she doesn’t even know what she’s recoiling from.

Because I was so keyed up all of this came very easily and very quickly.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

According to Hitchcock, the most difficult aspect of shooting the scene was getting the proper reaction from the actors. However, he found a creative solution to this problem.

“We had a problem when we were shooting that scene to get the actors inside the besieged house to respond properly because we didn’t yet have the sounds of the wings and the noises made by the birds. I had a drummer put on the set, with a small side drum and a mike with a loud speaker. Whenever the actors played their scene, there was a loud drum roll to help them react.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE FAWCETT FARM

Lydia’s discovery of the corpse at the Fawcett Farm was also improved by Hitchcock’s on-set improvisation.

“Another improvisation is the mother driving up to the farm, going into the house and calling the farmer before noticing the wrecked room and discovering the farmer’s body. While we were shooting that, I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ She calls the farmer and he doesn’t answer. Well, a woman in that position wouldn’t push it any further; she’d walk out of the house. So that’s how I got the idea to keep her there by having her notice the five broken teacups hanging from the hooks.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock was occasionally inspired by real life events, which added credibility to a few of his ideas.

“While I was shooting in Bodega Bay, there was an item in a San Francisco paper about crows attacking some young lambs, and – of all places – right in the same locality where we were working. I met a farmer who told me how the crows swooped down to kill his young lambs. That’s where I got the idea for the gouged-out eyes of the dead man.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock employed an unusual method of cutting in this particular scene. There are three “staccato” jump cuts – each getting progressively closer to the dead man’s eyes.

“I did it for several reasons. I wanted a change from the zooming in, but I wanted to be prepared for censorship problems. If I ran into censorship anywhere – you, like so, you can tape it out you see. And another item interesting about that moment, I never show the woman’s reaction to it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

The scene is quite effective, and is one of the brilliant moments in the film. Of course, the soundtrack added to the scene’s impact.

“The sound track was vital just there; we had the sound of her footsteps running down the passage, with almost an echo. The interesting thing in the sound is the difference between the footsteps inside the house and on the outside. Did you notice that I had her run from the distance and then went to a close-up when she’s paralyzed with fear and inarticulate? There’s silence at that point. Then, as she goes off again, the sound of the steps will match the size of the image. It grows louder right up to the moment she gets into the truck, and then the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish. We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would.

For the arrival of the truck, I had the road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away…

…The reason we went to all that trouble is that the truck, seen from a distance like that – moving at tremendous speed – expresses the frantic nature of the mother’s moves. In the previous scene we had shown that the woman was going through violent emotion, and when she gets into the truck, we showed that this was an emotional truck. Not only by the image, but also through the sound that sustains the emotion. It’s not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that’s like a cry. It’s as though the truck were shrieking.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE TIDES RESTAURANT

Of course, many of the scenes were planned and written ahead of time. Evan Hunter’s favorite example is the scene in the “Tides Restaurant.” Various characters are assembled with Melanie, and are discussing various theories about the reason behind the bird attacks.

“…the scene in the movie that I feel is really mine is the scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist. There’s the drunk at the bar, ‘It’s the end of the world’. The fisherman who complains that the birds are playing hell with his fishing boats… That whole scene is like a one-act play, and I really love it. I wrote that after I left California, and I sent it to Hitch. And he shot it without a moment’s hesitation.” –Evan Hunter (‘Crime Time’ Interview with Barry Forshaw)

Alfred Hitchcock seems to share Hunter’s affection for the scene.

“That scene doesn’t necessarily add anything, but I felt that after the attack of the birds on the children at the birthday party, the small birds coming down the chimney, and the attack of the crows outside the school, we should give the audience a rest before going back to horror. That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs. The character of the drunk is straight out of an O’Casey play, and the elderly lady ornithologist is pretty interesting. …The scene is a little on the long side, but I feel that if the audience is absorbed in it, it is automatically shortened. I’ve always measured the length or brevity of a scene by the degree of interest it holds for the public. If they’re completely absorbed, it’s a short scene; if they’re bored; the scene is bound to be long.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE SOUNDTRACK

Hunter seemed disappointed most of Hitchcock’s decisions. As a matter of fact, many of the more brilliant aspects of the film were opposed by Hunter. For example, Hunter wasn’t pleased to hear that there wouldn’t be a traditional score for The Birds.

“We sat alone in the screening room, side by side, Hitch and I, watching the opening credits of the film. He had decided by then that there would be no score for The Birds. Unmindful of his artistic pretensions for the film, I told him I thought that would be a mistake; that music could subtly foreshadow dire events to come or stridently accompany bird attacks until we had the audience screaming. He said no. No music.

The titles had no music behind them. The titles had no music behind them. The screen was filled with fuzzy images of flying birds. There was the sound of wings whirring. There was the sound of birds squeaking and eeking. It was all very scary and portentous. Maybe he was right.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

It is this reviewer’s opinion that Hitchcock was indeed “right.” Could Hunter really not grasp the effectiveness of Hitchcock’s sound design, or is this simply another example of ‘bitter grapes’? The film’s soundtrack is one of the more thrilling aspects of The Birds. This isn’t terribly surprising. Alfred Hitchcock always paid meticulous attention to the sound design in his films.

 “After a picture is cut, I dictate what amounts to a real sound script to a secretary. We run every reel off and I indicate all the places where sounds should be heard. Until now we’ve worked with natural sounds, but now – thanks to electronic sound – I’m not only going to indicate the sound we want but also the style and nature of each sound.

For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds, we inserted the natural sounds of wings, but we stylized them so as to create greater intensity. We wanted to get a menacing wave of vibration rather than a single level. There was a variation of the noise, an assimilation of the unequal noise of the wings. Of course, I took the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all.

To describe the sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’ That’s what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to achieve that effect through the use of electronic sound.

For the final scene, in which Rod Taylor opens the door to the house for the first time and finds the birds assembled there, as far as the eye can see, I asked for silence, but not just any kind of silence. I wanted an electronic silence, a sort of monotonous low hum that might suggest the sound of the sea in the distance. It was a strange, artificial sound, which in the language of the birds might be saying, ‘We’re not ready to attack you yet, but we’re getting ready. We’re like an engine that’s purring and we may start off at any moment.’ All of this was suggested by a sound that’s so low that you can’t be sure whether you’re actually hearing it or only imagining it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE ENDING

The film’s admirable ambiguous ending was a Hitchcock creation that wasn’t in the script. Hunter had written a very different scene.

“Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car’s top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.

Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it’s covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they’re driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.

Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch’s sister says, ‘Mitch do you think they’ll be in San Francisco when we get there?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, honey,’ and that’s the last line of the movie.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

 Obviously, none of this is in the film.

“When I saw the movie for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art’s invitational screening a year later – and realized that Hitch had sacrificed my ending in favor of what he called ‘the most difficult shot’ he’d ever done, a composite of birds requiring thirty-two separate exposures against a matte painting – I was appalled. The very hip and sophisticated black-tie audience, was to say the very least, somewhat glacially polite in its reception. A stunned silence greeted the final complicated mosaic of what appeared to be 3,407 pieces of bird film. Later, when I saw the film in a commercial theatre, people actually turned to each other and mumbled, ‘Is it over? Is that it? Huh?’ I left before they realized I was the man who’d written the screenplay and mistakenly assumed the ending they had just seen was concocted by me… Hitch didn’t film the scene that I wrote because then he would have made a movie with a thrilling suspenseful ending. He wasn’t going for that. He was going for high art.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Perhaps Hunter was too close to the material. The ending is appropriately haunting (and more original) than the one devised by Evan Hunter. Hunter liked to condescend about the ending for the simple reason that it wasn’t his own idea. Hitchcock was rightfully fond of the ending, and liked to discuss it in his interviews.

“There are 371 trick-shots in it, and the most difficult one was the last shot. That took 32 different pieces of film. We had a limited number of gulls allowed. Therefore, the foreground was shot in three panel sections, left to right, up to the birds on the rail. The few gulls we had were in the first third, we re-shot it for the middle third, and for the right-hand third, using the same gulls. Just above the heads of the crows was a long, slender middle section where the gulls were spread again. Then the car going down the driveway, with the birds on each side of it, was another piece of film. The sky was another piece of film, as was the barn on the left, and so on. These were all put together in the lab.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock originally had another idea for an ending that wasn’t used.

“…I toyed with the idea of lap-dissolving on them in the car, looking, and there is the Golden Gate Bridge–covered in birds.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

SPECIAL EFFECTS

If the film is remembered today, this is largely due to the fact that the film pioneered many complicated special effects techniques. It was a huge advancement in what was possible to achieve at the time. Today, people can achieve even better results with very little effort, but this was not the case in 1963.

Alfred Hitchcock used the traveling matte process to produce many of the effects in The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock himself described this process in a lengthy article about the making of The Birds.

“…Let us assume that we’re going to photograph two men talking on the corner of Fifth Avenue, New York, and were shooting the picture in June, but the story requires a snow covered street… Now, say the picture isn’t going out until the following year. The first snows come to New York in November. The cameraman goes out and sets the camera up roughly where the two men have stood and photographs Fifth Avenue in the snow. That film is brought into the studio – the lab – and they work on what is called the optical printer. The first film that goes into the printer is the raw stuff – the unexposed film – and against that the negative of Fifth Avenue.

Now, a print is made of the two men in front of the white backing and is overdeveloped to such a degree that the two men become silhouettes. So you add that as a third film to go through the printer. Thus you have a raw film, Fifth Avenue, and this black silhouette of two men talking.

In the printer, the black portion of the men has prevented the light from going through, so that the only part exposed onto the raw film is Fifth Avenue around the two men. If you were to develop that film at that moment and run it on a screen, you would get Fifth Avenue and two white silhouettes. Of course you don’t develop it, you just rewind the film and start again.

Now, what is the negative of the two men? We shot them against a white background; therefore the white background in the negative is black. So you just put this negative and the already partly exposed raw film through a printer the second time and now you have the men being printed in the space provided for them – the unexposed portion of the film. That is what is called a traveling matte.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The film’s color cinematography introduced other challenges for Alfred Hitchcock.

“…We’re going to have children running down the street and we have the problem of overlaying the ravens. We had about thirty or forty ravens who were trained to fly from one perch to another in the studio against a plain background. But now were in color. So, in order to get a silhouette (we must have a silhouette, otherwise it will ghost – like two snaps on one film), we photograph in color against a yellow background (the same light that they use for fog lights on cars). This sodium light, as it is called, is a color that is the narrowest band on the spectrum of light and comes out black. It’s the only color that won’t photograph.

So now you have your colored image and a black background. At the same time there is a prism – a lens which makes two images. One goes through in color and the other is reflected through a red filter onto ordinary black-and-white film, so that you make your silhouette at the same time as you’re making your scene. So that when you put the two together you have the negative of the children running down the street and the silhouette of the birds printed first and the real birds afterwards. So they’re overlaid. Now, you don’t hold that scene very long – you hold it for a flash. Then you go to a close-up op one of the children and you throw a live trained bird onto the shoulder of that child. And it’s the inter-cutting, the quick inter-cutting, that gives you the illusion of the scene in close-up and in distance and so forth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

One of the justifiably famous shots in The Birds was the shot of the birds descending upon the town. The point-of-view seems to be an apathetic God. The success of the shot belongs to many people, who worked tirelessly to bring Hitchcock’s vision of the shot to life.

“…Now, we didn’t have a full town out there, we had a dockside and so forth. So we put the camera on a hill of the studio where they were building a new car park. In our scene we had a gas station on fire and a trail of flaming gas toward a car park… But all the rest was nothing – we just marked it out with lines so that people could only run in a certain direction. The matte-artist painted a painting of the view above the harbor, except he blacked out the live portion – the flame and the people running. These two – live portion and matte – are printed together. So that now, when we look at it on the screen, it’s as though you’re in a helicopter or high up in a balloon. There’s a whole town, there’s a blaze, and people running.

Now the next problem: having the birds fly down. We hired an island off the coast and put a camera on a high cliff. We brought the gulls around with fish behind the camera and then threw the fish over the cliff – and with the camera on the beach below. When this film was shown we looked at it and there it was: a cliff side, surf, [and] beach, with gulls going down.

Now, two women took this film frame by frame – each little frame. Only fifteen feet in all, but it took them three months to transfer by painting each individual bird onto a plain background. They also painted the silhouette of each bird. And that’s the way the birds were printed over the scene and they were seen going down. That lasted ten seconds on the screen – we took three months to do it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The matte painting that Hitchcock mentions was the work of Albert Whitlock. This was only one of many matte paintings that Whitlock contributed to the picture.

RECEPTION

Despite an aggressive ad campaign, The Birds received a very mixed reception upon its release. Variety’s review hinted at the kind of reception that the film would receive from “important” critics.

“Beneath all of this elaborate feather bedlam lies a Hitch cock-and-bull story that’s essentially a fowl ball.

The premise is fascinating. The idea of billions of bird-brains refusing to eat crow any longer and adopting the hunt-and-peck system, with homosapiens as their ornithological target, is fraught with potential. Cinematically, Hitchcock & Co have done a masterful job of meeting this formidable challenge. But dramatically, The Birds is little more than a shocker-for shock’s-sake.

Evan Hunter’s screenplay, from Daphne du Maurier’s story, has it that a colony of our feathered ‘friends’ over California’s Bodega Bay (it’s never clear how far-reaching this avian mafia extends) suddenly decides, for no apparent reason, to swoop down en masse on the human population, beaks first. These bird raids are captivatingly bizarre and terrifying.

Where the scenario and picture slip is in the sphere of the human element. An unnecessary elaborate romantic plot has been cooked up and then left suspended. It involves a young bachelor attorney (Rod Taylor), his sister (Veronica Cartwright), their mother (Jessica Tandy), and a plucky, mysterious playgirl (Tippi Hedren) whose arrival from San Francisco with a pair of caged lovebirds for Taylor coincides with the outbreak of avian hostility…” –Variety (December 31, 1962)

Time magazine’s review followed with a similar review of the film that can be summed up with a single sentence; “The movie flaps to a plotless end.” The review seems to site Hunter’s “screwball comedy” opening as the source of most of the trouble with the film, as is evident in the opening paragraph.

“…With a shrieking din, the lettering of the titles and credits comes on, only to be pecked from the screen by a squadron of crazed starlings. Having hinted at the ornithophobic horror to come, director Alfred Hitchcock goes nattering on with an hour of some silly plot-boiling about a flirtatious society girl (Tippi Hedren), a lovelorn schoolmarm (Suzanne Pleshette), an Oedipus wreck (Rod Taylor) and a pair of lovebirds…” –Time (Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach’s review for “Film Quarterly” was a rather lengthy diatribe against the film. It would be ill-advised to take Callenbach’s opinions too seriously. His review is redundant, and rambles for the sake of showcasing his own intelligence (which is lacking). In this reviewer’s opinion, his use of the word “Dionysiac” instead of “Dionysian” discredits him. This is of course, if his audience hasn’t already stopped reading after he mistakes Vera Miles for Janet Leigh. His condescension is irritating, even when one agrees with his opinions. I understand that shortly after the review was published, the editor considered renaming the publication “Pretension Quarterly.”

“‘The Birds is coming!’ says Hitchcock on the posters, and we enter the theater with a pleasant chortle of anticipated horror. Ah that phallic symbolism!

The result is disappointing. The film has been made; it seems to me, on two mistaken assumptions. One is that a frightening film can be made in naturalistic color, and the other is that an attack by birds carries the emotional impact of a really horrific situation. There are other mistakes too — Tippi Hedren, an atrocious and atrociously directed child, and Hitchcock’s usual inability to dramatize affectionate relationships. But some of these might have been remedied.

No doubt Hitchcock’s reasoning was that the pastoral loveliness of Bodega Bay, rendered in soft color, would make us feel more attachment to the scene when it is abruptly threatened by thousands of attacking gulls and crows: so beautiful a little town, to have such a thing happen in it! Yet the effect is precisely the reverse: it reduces the scene to postcard dimensions, so that we care less rather than more, because it is only picturesque. The ratty motel in Psycho, by contrast, was a setting apt for the most extreme horrors; in itself it was a ratty motel only, yet quickly — through the lighting, the hole in the wall, the excellent playing of Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins — the film slid into an area of real emotional impact. The Birds never does. The trick work tries hard — with, reportedly, as many as five simultaneous super-impositions of various birds attacking. But the film has too many obvious loopholes. Above all, why does Rod Taylor, presented as an intelligent and experienced man, not devise with the townsmen — who are largely fishermen and obviously very competent about mechanical matters — any reasonable attempted defense? Who ventured to imagine that seagull beaks could pierce heavy planks? Such nagging mundane questions arise, obviously, because the film is unable to tap in, as a skillful thriller does, on unconscious fears. (Some women seem to be frightened by The Birds, but the general report is that it isn’t very scary; Psycho, on the other hand, terrified almost everybody, though its pseudo-psychiatric ending relieved the tension by being inadvertently comic.) A flock of attacking birds may be surprising, since we all have a somewhat rosy picture of the gentleness of birds, but they remain just a lot of attacking birds; they are natural, external forces to be combated somehow or other, or fled from; they do not share the potentially supernatural mysteries and terrors of those things which are human or inhuman. Hence when Hitchcock makes Tippi walk slowly up the stairs and enter the bird-infested room, it is not at all the obsessive action of Janet Leigh going down the stairs to Mrs. Bates in Psycho; her action leads not toward a psychic resolution of fears, but only to a bloody fight. (The discovery of the body of the feed-dealer, at the end of another corridor, is much more effective.)

Now Hitchcock reportedly concedes that the picture is somewhat allegorically intended. Certainly the McCarthyite grotesque of the mother who accuses Tippi of witchcraft has too many overtones to be neglected. The ending without an end title also, presumably, is intended to make one reflect upon fatal perils seemingly averted — when will the next wave of birds strike? (It is worth remembering that the military slang for missiles is “birds.”) Yet most such aspects of the film would have to be interpreted as cynical triviality if we took this seriously — the lovebirds as a token at the end? — the cops as the bumblers of Civil Defense? — or even the birds is irrational evil or dionysiac forces? No, it must be merely more of Master Alfred’s jokes, perhaps thrown in to insure respectful treatment in Cahiers du Cinema.

The trick work deserves special scrutiny in itself, since the picture is largely a tour de force on this level. Here too Hitchcock falls short. It is not easy to make us believe that birds, normally cautious and timid creatures, might attack men — who after all, even if they were armed with nothing but ball-bats or old 2×4’s, are among the earth’s most dangerous inhabitants. We therefore scrutinize the trick shots with great care: how exactly would birds behave in such a situation? And of course they don’t behave at all in the crucially necessary sense. They seem to fly by at more or less the correct angles to be attacking; they glide in a way almost lifelike enough to convince us; their beaks are made to slash (like the knife in Psycho) against Tippi’s outstretched stigmata-ready hands; their bodies bang into the glass of the telephone booth. Another Hitchcock gargoyle, a hermaphroditic bird-watcher, and skeptic, spells out for us the gigantic number of birds in the world — in which might lie real danger. But in fact, of course, we never actually see any single live bird unambiguously committing a hostile action, like standing there and visibly pecking at somebody’s eyeball. If we had, the effect would have been electric and genuinely horrible, for it would have clearly contradicted our stereotyped feelings about birds, and it is upon such unsettlements of our usual control reactions that the maker of horrific films must play. But since Hitchcock cannot accomplish this, he cannot really touch us, and we are left sitting there amused at good old Alfred’s ingenious but old-fashioned cutting tricks.

These tricks are deployed without the ease and verve of Psycho, moreover. Whereas Psycho is a sickening slide into ever more terrifying events, until the ridiculous psychiatry sets in at the end, The Birds uses up its excitement early, then tries to rise to what is only an anticlimax — the escape of the four individuals in the sports car. One expects, as they inch their way out of the house surrounded by thousands of quietly clucking gulls, that Tippi will yell in terror, or the child going back for the lovebirds will disturb the gulls, and that they will attack again, in a kind of doomsday fantasy which has been rather common in fiction lately. However, the four do get away — at least for now. It is hard to care much; one wonders idly what has been happening elsewhere, if anything. The radio has said that apparently the plague is only local. But nothing follows; the curtains close.

Visually the film is far from Hitchcock at his best. Some of it — like the boat ride Tippi takes across Bodega Bay — is downright clumsy; some is merely tedious, like the protracted conversation in the schoolteacher’s living room. There are inexplicably shaky tracking shots, and on the whole the film has the feel of being skimped both in the shooting and in the shot-planning. Tippi Hedren is a pretty blonde of very modest abilities, working here slightly below the Grace Kelly class level the film tries to ascribe to her. Rod Taylor is a large but emotionally featureless object, and the rest are routine characterizations signifying nothing.

As often in Hitchcock, there are a lot of irrelevant characters and details — a former lover of the hero’s, who is firmly established only to get her eyes pecked out while the child is watching; TV-level ‘sophisticated’ dialogue between hero and heroine; widowed anxious castrating mother, etc.

Worse still, the dialogue has a way of undermining the film. Somebody reports a past plague of gulls in a nearby city — or were they just lost in the fog? (At any rate, they flew away peacefully next day.) The radio reports, later in the film, seem to imply that the outbreak of bird attacks is a local matter — dreadful for the handful of people involved, no doubt, but not some great upheaval of nature. The police of the nearby county-seat are skeptical and rather make light of the whole thing. This accentuates our concern for the safety of the principals, but it detracts from the over-all sense of danger. A really skillful film frightener takes pains to make his dangers open-ended — there is no telling how bad things might get! — and suggestive of ultimate horrors and revelations; he avoids elements in the film which will narrow things down to even possibly controllable dimensions. Orson Welles’s Martian broadcast is still a model in these matters — it scared some 40,000 people into leaving New York City — and makers of films about Menaces would do well to study it. Hitchcock tries to play in this league and fails — predictably so, perhaps, for his forte is the projection of the personally murderous impulse. Psycho, in its own sick way, was a small masterpiece, despite its denouement. But a mess of inconclusive phallic symbolism like Hitchcock’s new film is — let’s say it once again — for the birds.” -Ernest Callenbach (Film Quarterly, 1963)

The review published in The London Times (aka The Times) provides us with a bridge between the negative and the positive. The review begins by lauding many aspects of production, but qualifies the film’s merits with a number of criticisms. In the end, it labels the film “second-grade Hitchcock.”

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock seldom fails to pull a surprise out of his sleeve, and his latest film is no exception. ‘The Birds is coming!’ scream the posters, and evil-looking black silhouettes hang over us; ‘It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made’, Mr. Hitchcock warns us (with characteristic ambiguity) from hoardings. So, naturally, we go along prepared at once to be scared out of our wits. And what happens? For the first three-quarters of an hour, virtually nothing. In his most insolently insidious fashion Mr. Hitchcock begins with throwaway social comedy shading little by little into drama… It is all very cool, and precise, and leisurely. And so it goes on for exactly 45 minutes. We know these people, from films and from life; we know where we are, and can prepare with reasonable equanimity for a fairly conventional thriller with, presumably, science-fiction touches.

Then the birds come. First one, a stray seagull which for no apparent reason swoops out of a clear blue sky and pecks the heroine. Then other little attacks here and there. Then suddenly a sort of collective frenzy which all at once seizes great flocks of otherwise harmless birds — the sort of birds one disregards and walks happily among on the pavements of any city in the world — and sets them tearing and clawing at a humanity totally unprepared for any such betrayal. For betrayal it seems. We are used to supposing that nature is there for us; “man superior walks amid the glad creation” and mere animals and plants know their places. But how fragile is the structure of our complacency; what would happen if something went wrong and the balance of power we so casually take on trust were changed overnight?

This is the theme of The Birds, and it is in general brilliantly handled. The old master’s skill in starting from the ordinary only to drop us terrifyingly into the extraordinary has seldom been better deployed. No traditional menace is allowed to intrude; there are none of the birds that normally frighten us, no suggestion that these birds have somehow acquired superior intelligence or are the agents of a superior intelligence. They are throughout just birds, ordinary birds, behaving as birds might given the one basic, by no means incredible assumption that something — some form of rabies, perhaps — might sweep, through them rather as myxomatosis did the rabbit population of the world. Once one accepts the possibility of this, all the rest falls into place as a cunningly unanswerable morality; the mushroom-shaped cloud may be the least of our troubles — that at least is part of our own house and we can, if we will, keep it in order; rather, we should remember that we occupy that house only on sufferance.

The conception of the film, then, is compelling.

What prevents it nevertheless from matching the most extraordinary of Mr. Hitchcock’s achievements — Psycho, Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry — is an occasional faltering in the execution. Though a lot of the process work needed to show the birds attacking is superbly done, there are odd shots which look so patently fake that they weaken our confidence in the whole. Then the cast seems, in comparison with those Mr. Hitchcock has lately been assembling, a trifle colourless: Mr. Rod Taylor’s lawyer hero is rather a dull stick and Miss “Tippi” Hedren, another of those cool-but-sizzling-underneath blondes that Mr. Hitchcock delights to feature in his films, is less appealing than many: one takes the point that she is not meant to be a very agreeable character, but at least the qualities she does have might come over more vividly. And finally the script (by Mr. Evan Hunter, vaguely suggested by a story of Miss Daphne du Maurier) does lie a little heavy, especially towards the end of the first movement, when all the characters spend too much time un-illuminatingly discussing their relations with their own and each other’s mothers.

But when all this is said, second-grade Hitchcock is still about twice as exciting as first-grade anyone else. There are marvelous ideas (like the irony of the heroine fluttering frantically, “caged” in a phone-booth by savage, blood-lusting birds) and always the sheer drive and discipline of his visual story-telling. And, to come back to the basics which still mean most to the average filmgoer when the name of Mr. Hitchcock is mentioned, it can be safely guaranteed to make even the most stout-hearted think twice the next time he starts casually to brush aside a couple of stray pigeons that cross his path.” –The Times (August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut was extremely kind to the film in his review for Cahiers du Cinéma, but admitted that the film “isn’t perfect.”

“…Hitchcock has never won an Oscar, although he is the only living filmmaker whose films, when they are reissued twenty years after their first appearance, are as strong at the box office as new films. His last film, The Birds, is admittedly not perfect. Rod Taylor and ‘Tippi’ Hedren are imperfectly matched, and the sentimental story (as almost always, husband hunting) suffers from it. But what an injustice there is in the generally bad reception. I am so disappointed that no critic admired the basic premise of the film: ‘Birds attack people.’ I am convinced that cinema was invented so that such a film could be made. Everyday birds — sparrows, seagulls, crows — take to attacking ordinary people, the inhabitants of a seacoast village. This is an artist’s dream; to carry it off requires a lot of art, and you need to be the greatest technician in the world.

Alfred Hitchcock and his collaborator, Evan Hunter (Asphalt Jungle), kept only the idea of Daphne du Maurier’s short story: seaside birds take to attacking humans, first in the countryside, then in the town, at the exits of schools, and even in their homes.

No film of Hitchcock’s has ever shown a more deliberate progression: as the action unfolds, the birds become blacker and blacker, more and more numerous, increasingly evil. When they attack people, they prefer to go for their eyes. Basically fed up with being captured and put in cages — if not eaten — the birds behave as if they had decided to reverse the roles.

Hitchcock thinks that The Birds is his most important film. I think so too in a certain way — although I’m not sure. Starting with such a powerful mold, Hitch realized that he had to be extremely careful with the plot so that it would be more than a pretext to connect scenes of bravura or suspense. He created a very successful character, a young San Francisco woman, sophisticated and snobbish, who (in enduring all these bloody experiences) discovers simplicity and naturalness.

The Birds can be considered a special-effects film, indeed, but the special effects are realistic. In fact, Hitchcock’s mastery of the art grows greater with each film and he constantly needs to invent new difficulties for himself. He has become the ultimate athlete of cinema.

In actual fact, Hitchcock is never forgiven for making us afraid, deliberately making us afraid. I believe, however, that fear is a “noble emotion” and that it can also be “noble” to cause fear. It is “noble” to admit that one has been afraid and has taken pleasure in it. One day, only children will possess this nobility.” -François Truffaut (1963)

It comes as a surprise that Bosley Crowther was another of the film’s champions.

“…Making a terrifying menace out of what is assumed to be one of nature’s most innocent creatures and one of man’s most melodious friends, Mr. Hitchcock and his associates have constructed a horror film that should raise the hackles of the most courageous and put goose-pimples on the toughest hide.

Whether Mr. Hitchcock intended this picture of how a plague of birds almost ruins a peaceful community to be symbolic of how the world might be destroyed (or perilously menaced) by a sudden disorder of nature’s machinery is not apparent in the picture. Nor is it made readily clear whether he meant the birds to represent the classical Furies that were supposed to pursue the wicked on this earth.

I prefer to suspect the latter, although it isn’t in Mr. Hitchcock’s style to inject allegorical meanings or social significance in his films…

…But whether or not it is intended that you should find significance in this film, it is sufficiently equipped with other elements to make the senses reel. Mr. Hitchcock, as is his fashion, has constructed it beautifully, so that the emotions are carefully worked up to the point where they can be slugged…

…Notice how clear and naturalistic the narrative elements are: a plausible confrontation, beautiful scenery, a literal enactment of a playful intrigue — all very nicely arranged.

Then, sneakily, Mr. Hitchcock tweaks us with a tentative touch of the bizarre. The plausible is interrupted by a peculiar avian caprice. A seagull attacks a young woman. Flocks of angry gulls whirl in the air. A swarm of sparrows swoops down a chimney and whirrs madly through the living room. And, then, before we know it, he is flying in shock waves of birds and the wild, mad, fantastic encounter with a phenomenon of nature is on.

There may be no explanation for it (except that symbolic one, perhaps), but the fierceness and frightfulness of it are sufficient to cause shocks and chills. And that is, no doubt, what Mr. Hitchcock primarily intends.

The cast is appropriate and sufficient to this melodramatic intent. …And those birds! Well, you’ve never seen such actors! They are amazingly malevolent feathered friends.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, April 1, 1963)

 Andrew Sarris also admired the film upon its release.

The Birds is here (at the Palace and Sutton), and what a joy to behold a self-contained movie which does not feed parasitically on outside cultural references—Chekhov, Synge, O’Neill, Genet, Behan, Melville, or what have you. Drawing from the relatively invisible literary talents of Daphne Du Maurier and Evan Hunter, Alfred Hitchcock has fashioned a major work of cinematic art, and “cinematic” is the operative term here, not “literary” or “sociological.” There is one sequence, for example, where the heroine is in an outboard motor boat churning across the bay while the hero’s car is racing around the shore road to intercept her on the other side. This race, in itself pure cinema, is seen entirely from the girl’s point of view. We see only what she can see from the rowboat. Suddenly, near shore, the camera picks up a sea gull swooping down on our heroine. For just a second, the point of view is shifted, and we are permitted to see the bird before its victim does. The director has apparently broken an aesthetic rule for the sake of a shock effect—gull pecks girl. Yet this momentary incursion of the objective on the subjective is remarkably consistent with the meaning of the film.

The theme, after all, is complacency, as the director has stated on innumerable occasions . . . As in Psycho, Hitchcock succeeds in implicating his audience to such an extent that the much-criticized, apparently anticlimactic ending of the film finds the audience more blood-thirsty than the birds.” -Andrew Sarris (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)

LEGACY

Today, The Birds is simply accepted as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important films. Because it is an important work that made advancements in what could be achieved on the screen, people consider The Birds to be of his best films. Donald Spoto even claimed that it is one of the director’s masterpieces.

“…The result is perhaps Hitchcock’s least accessible motion picture, for it reveals its richness like a demanding art novel or a complex symphony, only after considerable effort. Even ardent Hitchcockians among those mystified and disappointed by this picture, although The Birds is certainly among his half-dozen masterpieces and one of the purest, most darkly lyrical films ever created. Part of the problem may be Hitchcock’s refusal to compromise, for The Birds is nothing like the traditional narrative with a beginning, a middle and a firm conclusion… (Discussing The Birds with the author of this book, Federico Fellini called it an apocalyptic poem and affirmed it as his favorite among Hitchcock’s works and one of the cinema’s greatest achievements.)” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

While this reviewer does not subscribe to popular belief that The Birds is one of the master’s best efforts, it is an endlessly interesting work that rewards viewers with new revelations each time that it is seen. After all, second tier Hitchcock is still much better than most other films (especially these days).

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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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 that improves on the artwork used for the various DVD releases of the film.

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

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There is very little room for complaint (especially concerning the individual release).

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Birds is a troublesome title to judge in terms of picture quality. The film is marred to some extent by the special effects photography. Some shots are naturally second, third, and even fourth generation images. Obviously, these images will not be as immaculate as one expects from Blu-ray transfers. This reviewer cannot hold this against the transfer, even if some of these images aren’t as pristine as one might prefer. The image is a bit softer than one expects in high definition, but much of this is due to the production photography. This transfer is vastly superior to previous DVD releases of the film, and warrants an upgrade. There is more detail evident in the transfer, and aliasing is less of an issue here. The picture contrast is also vastly superior than it has been in previous releases of the film. Colors seem to be accurately rendered, and black levels are deep and lovely. Some shots do exhibit a bit of unattractive noise, but these incidents do not represent the presentation in its entirety. There has also been a bit of digital tampering, and there is an occasional artifact. This is never distracting, but it is somewhat unfortunate. This transfer might not be great, but it is certainly a vast improvement. It would be a mistake to expect much more than this.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The faithful DTS-HD 2.0 Mono Master Audio track is fabulous. Certain audiences might prefer a 5.1 mix, but this track best represents the film as it was intended to be experienced upon the film’s release. The sounds are always crisp and clear, and dialogue is always intelligible. The sound effects are full and have an aggression that one might expect in more modern films (even if they are focused through the front speakers). While a 5.1 mix would certainly be an enjoyable experience, this loss-less Mono track does the job admirably.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

All About The Birds – (SD) – (1:19:49) –

Laurent Bouzereau’s feature-length documentary about the making of The Birds is incredibly comprehensive. It covers every aspect of production in explicit detail. The program was produced at a time when supplemental features were actually quite wonderful (instead of mere fluff pieces). Patricia Hitchcock, ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Rod Taylor, Veronica Cartwright, Evan Hunter, Ray Berwick, Robert Boyle, Hilton Green, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Harold Michelson, Howard Smit, Steven C. Smith, and Robin Wood all share memories, or provide their expertise about the film. The viewer will also hear Alfred Hitchcock discuss the film’s ending with Peter Bogdanovich. The disc would be worth its asking price if this were the only supplement included! This documentary is second only to Bouzereau’s similar program about Psycho… and it is a very close second.

The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie – (HD) – (14:23) –

This featurette is exclusive to the Blu-ray of The Birds, and is essentially an analysis of the film’s place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. The piece makes the argument that The Birds is the master’s “monster movie.” It is nice to have it included here, but it isn’t one of the discs better supplements.

‘Tippi’ Hedren’s Screen Test (SD) – (9:57) –

This footage from ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s screen test (featuring Martin Balsam) is an absolute gem. Alfred Hitchcock fans should find this footage to be absolutely essential, and will be thrilled to have it in their collection.

Suspense Story: National Press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:54) –

This newsreel includes a humorous speech that Alfred Hitchcock gave for the National Press Club. It is both interesting and enjoyable.

The Birds is Coming (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:17) –

This newsreel features footage that highlights pigeon races that publicized The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock and ‘Tippi’ Hedren witness the event.

Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Excerpts – (SD) – (13:58) –

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: Restoring the Classics – (HD) – (9:13) –

This featurette is essentially a commercial for the Universal catalog, and discusses the restoration of a few Universal films (including The Birds). The few nuggets of information that are related to the viewer concern the restoration process.

100 Years of Universal: The Lot – (HD) – (9:26) –

This featurette is essentially a fluff piece about the Universal lot, but it does include a few brief moments of interesting footage that makes it worth watching.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (5:11) –

The theatrical trailer for The Birds is an incredibly creative promotional film featuring Alfred Hitchcock discussing the history of man’s relationship with the birds. It is of course done with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. It is truly excellent, and this disc would be incomplete without it.

Deleted Scene – (SD) – (4:20) –

This deleted scene featuring Melanie and Mitch was shot, but no longer exists (at least not to anyone’s current knowledge). Therefore, the scene is presented as a sort of slide show with excerpts from the script and images from the scene.

Original Ending – (SD) – (3:40) –

Since the original ending was never shot, we are given a slide show presentation of script pages and conceptual sketches that illustrate what the ending would have been like.

Storyboards – (SD) – (24:21) –

Audiences are given a slide show comparing various storyboards with images from the film.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

Another slide show of production photos, stills, advertisements, posters, and other images is also included.

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Final Words:

The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important efforts, and fans will want to include this Blu-ray in their libraries. The special features included on the disc are truly excellent, and the transfer is a definite upgrade from previous DVD releases of the film.

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Source Materials:

Article (The Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

Daphne du Maurier (The Birds)

Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 18, 1961)

Alfred Hitchcock Using Sentinel’s Seabird Story (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 21, 1961)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Charles L.P. Silet (MysteryNet)

Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Interview (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Barry Forshaw (Crime Time)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Review (Variety, December 31, 1962)

Review (Time, Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach Review (Film Quarterly, 1963)

Review (The Times, August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut Review (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1963)

Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, April 1, 1963)

Andrew Sarris Review (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Tony Lee Moral (The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds)

Review By: Devon Powell