4K UHD Blu-ray Review: The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Release Date: September 08, 2020

Region —

4K UHD: Region Free

BLU-RAY: Region A

Length —

Rear Window: 01:52:27

Vertigo: 02:08:27

Psycho (Original Theatrical Version): 01:49:04

Psycho (Censored Re-release Version): 01:48:51

The Birds: 01:59:31

Video —

4K UHD: 2160P (HEVC, H.265)

BLU-RAY (Rear Window + Psycho + The Birds): 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

BLU-RAY (Vertigo): 1080P (VC-1)

Audio (4K UHD) —

Rear Window:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French European DTS Digital Audio

Vertigo:

English DTS X

2.0 Mono English Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French (European) DTS Digital Audio

Psycho:

English DTS X

2.0 Mono English DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French (European) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

The Birds:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish (Latin American) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono French (European) DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Japanese DTS Digital Audio

2.0 Mono Portuguese (Brazilian) DTS Digital Audio

Audio (BLU-RAY) —

Rear Window:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 Mono French DTS Audio

Vertigo:

5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono English DTS Audio

2.0 Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 French DTS Audio

Psycho:

English DTS X

7.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 Mono French DTS Audio

The Birds:

2.0 Mono English DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 Mono Spanish DTS Audio

2.0 Mono French DTS Audio

Subtitles —

Rear Window: English SDH, Spanish, French

Vertigo: English SDH, Spanish, French

Psycho: English SDH, Spanish, French

The Birds: English SDH, Spanish, French (The 4K UHD also includes Japanese and Portuguese subtitles.)

Ratio —

Rear Window: 1.66:1

Vertigo: 1.85:1

Psycho: 1.85:1

The Birds: 1.85:1

Bitrate —

Rear Window (4K UHD): 97.00 Mbps

Rear Window (BLU-RAY): 31.99 Mbps

Vertigo (4K UHD): 90.00 Mbps

Vertigo (BLU-RAY): 29.90 Mbps

Psycho (4K UHD): 60.00 Mbps

Psycho (BLU-RAY): 24.43 Mbps

The Birds (4K UHD): 68.00 Mbps

The Birds (BLU-RAY): 29.37 Mbps

Notes: This is the 4K UHD debut for these four titles. The included Blu-ray discs for Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds are the same discs that have been available both individually and in previous boxed sets since 2012. These titles do not include new transfers. However, the included Blu-ray edition of Psycho is a new transfer and includes the original theatrical cut of the film. The package also includes digital copies of all four titles.

Alfred Hitchcock Master is pleased to present four exclusive new guest articles in celebration of Universal’s The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection. Each of these articles discuss one of the four films included in this new 4K UHD collection:

Rear Window: In the Heat of the Night

Exclusive Guest Article By: Robert Jones

Another Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Exclusive Guest Article By: Dan Auiler

Psycho Consideration

Exclusive Guest Article By: Ken Mogg

Hitchcock’s The Birds Is Our Modern Day Pandemic

Exclusive Guest Article By: Tony Lee Moral

The Presentation:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s eight-disc set is given a rather attractive (but undeniably kitschy) book-style presentation with a pair of pages for each film that includes folders for the 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs. Those who own one of the many other Hitchcock Blu-ray sets that Universal has released throughout the years will know what to expect here.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the packaging becomes a deal breaker for some people. This is a design that seems special on the surface but actually provides the consumer with less value than if each film had been provided with a sturdy 2-disc 4K UHD case. Such an approach would offer adequate protection for each of the discs. The folder-style compartments in these Hitchcock sets don’t protect the discs at all. In fact, they very often cause scratches. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the compartments are extremely tight. It is a serious struggle to remove the discs without damaging either the packaging or the disc itself. Fans will have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to remove a disc without scratching it every single time they wish to watch one of these films. What good is attractive packaging if isn’t user friendly?

Fans might wish to invest in individual disc envelopes or plastic disc sleeves. This would allow them to place the eight discs into the sleeves and simply pull the sleeves out of the book’s folder-compartments with less risk of scratching or smudging them.

It is time for Universal to stop packaging their discs in this manner. This is a major issue with what would have otherwise been a near-perfect release.

Rear Window

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

Rear Window wasn’t the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to be projected in the ‘widescreen’ format, but it was his first film to be projected wide in every theatre. The recommended ratio was 1.66:1, and Universal has retained this theatrical ratio for this 4K UHD release. (The same can be said about their Blu-ray transfer of the film.)

This 2160p transfer of Rear Window doesn’t merely offer an improvement in resolution. It seems to be a more accurate rendering of the film’s source elements. The Blu-ray was a fine transfer for that particular format, but there were moments that seemed as if the image had been brightened. This new UHD image prefers to allow the film’s darker scenes to remain dark. Shadows appear to be deeper and contrast is richer here. Colors also seem healthier here, much more stable, and more realistic than they appeared on the Blu-ray disc. HDR really seems to add subtle improvements in this area. The disc encode hasn’t introduced any noticeable anomalies either. Of course, it is important to remember that all of these areas have been judged with the film’s age in mind. It would be ridiculous to expect the film to look like a recent blockbuster (and this is a good thing in certain respects). However, none of the age related blemishes become problematic or at all distracting.

BLU-RAY: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal has recycled their old 2014 Blu-ray disc for this release, and our opinions about the transfer remain the same:

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

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal seems to recycle their old 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio that featured on the earlier Blu-ray, but that was always a lovely mix and needs no upgrade here. Alfred Hitchcock used sound dramatically and with particular creative flair in Rear Window, and it seems more important that they include a faithful lossless reproduction of the film’s original mix than to offer a ham-fisted 5.1 re-mix. Sometimes those re-mixes are merely bumbled counterfeits of a soundtrack that wasn’t broken in the first place.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The same two-channel Mono DTS-HD Master Audio mix appears on the included Blu-ray disc, and this should satisfy even the most discriminating listeners. Dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout, and the amazing ambiance of the neighborhood has never sounded better on a home video format. This was a terrific sound transfer in 2014, and it remains a solid track today.

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Commentary with John Fawell

John Fawell is the author of a wonderful book entitled “Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film.” While some may complain that his commentary track is a bit dry, he does offer a significant amount of interesting analysis that is peppered with production details. Most fans of the film will enjoy the commentary a great deal, and it is certainly a welcome addition to the disc.

Rear Window Ethics – (55:10)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary about the making of Rear Window examines the production of this wonderful classic before discussing the film’s restoration. It is one of the best supplements on a disc that is full of wonderful supplements.

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

John Michael Hayes discusses how he came to work on the screenplay for Rear Window and shares his memories of working with Alfred Hitchcock. This is a rather detailed program that offers a lot more information than one might expect from a thirteen minute featurette. One may want to watch this featurette before watching Rear Window Ethics.

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

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

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

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

Masters of Cinema – (33:39)

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer

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

Re-Release Trailer (Narrated by James Stewart)

This re-release trailer features narration from James Stewart about the re-release of VertigoThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThe Trouble with HarryRope, and Rear Window. It is surprisingly interesting but also rather dated.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This is a gallery of production stills, advertisements, and posters that were used to promote Rear Window.

Vertigo

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s new 2160p transfer of Vertigo is without question this set’s most beautiful transfer in this set. It really stands apart from the other titles away in many regards. This is probably because of the 70mm restoration source used for this particular transfer. The film was shot in Vistavision, and this gave the film a significant increase in resolution from a typical 35mm image. The image is so overwhelmingly impressive to these eyes that it is difficult to know where to start. Robert Burks’s brilliant color cinematography is brought to dazzling life here as they show an amazing amount of vibrancy that never feels artificial. Blacks are deeper with richer shadow depth. The Blu-ray seems to have been brightened in comparison with this darker transfer, but this seems more accurate when one watches the film in motion. Fans will also notice an obvious increase in sharpness, clarity, and fine detail throughout the duration of the movie. Of course, grain is handled remarkably here as it is very fine but always looks filmic.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

It was interesting to discover that the soundtrack has been given an upgrade here as Universal offers fans a DTS X Master Audio mix instead of the lossless 5.1 presentation that graced the 2014 Blu-ray edition of this film. The differences are especially evident in Bernard Herrmann’s terrific score, and one must admit that the differences are quite welcome. It is certainly an immersive mix that seems to have been created with loving care as each element is well prioritized.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

If Universal had included the wonderful restoration commentary with Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, this would be a near-perfect collection of supplements.

Feature Length Commentary by William Friedkin

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

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

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

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

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

This documentary has four chapters:

Saul Bass: Title Champ

Edith Head: Dressing the Master’s Movies

Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock’s Maestro

Alma: The Master’s Muse

Each of these chapters is informative and entertaining, and they are all likely to increase the viewer’s appreciation of Vertigo and the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography.

Foreign Censorship Ending – (02:09)

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

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

It is unacceptable at this point not to include pertinent excerpts from Hitchcock’s legendary book length interview with François Truffaut. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films, and this portion of their interview isn’t an exception.

100 Years of Universal Lew Wasserman Era – (09:00)

This featurette about Universal Studios during Lew Wasserman’s reign is an appropriate extra for a Hitchcock film (and even includes a clip of Alfred Hitchcock promoting the Universal tour). It certainly isn’t the best supplement here, but it is entertaining and informative enough to earn its place in this collection of supplements.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (02:30)

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

Restoration Theatrical Trailer – (01:23)

The 1996 restoration re-release trailer marks an important moment in the film’s history as few classic films are given such a well-publicized re-release (or such a meticulous and painstaking restoration).

The Vertigo Archives

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

Psycho

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The original 2010 Blu-ray transfer of Psycho (and all of Universal’s subsequent Blu-ray releases up until now) included a transfer that has been criticized for being an overly processed representation of the film. There was an obvious overuse of DNR applied to the image in an effort to “manage” the film’s grain, contrast was pushed a bit too far, and it appears that artificial digital sharpening had also been applied. Having said this, the film still managed to look outstanding.

It is wonderful to report that this new transfer corrects those issues and looks considerably more filmic. In fact, any issues that one might find with this particular transfer seem to represent the source. The improvements here go beyond the perimeters of the added resolution that this format allows. Revelatory improvements in fine detail are certainly evident, gradients see a significant if subtle improvement due to the HDR capabilities of the format, textures aren’t as waxy here, blacks are healthier here (it appears that the 2010 transfer had been brightened to “enhance” the image), and clarity is also greatly improved. Universal’s impeccable encoding has ensured that fans can enjoy this remarkable new upgrade without ant distracting artifacts, although sensitive viewers man notice some aliasing during certain scenes. Age related film damage is also occasionally evident but never blatant or distracting.

The “uncut” theatrical version and the re-release cut of the film are seamlessly branched, so there isn’t any different in the quality of the two included versions if the film.

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc includes a 1080p transfer of the same master used for the 4K UHD disc, so much of what was written about that disc also applies to this one. However, we might add that some fans may fault this disc for not being as sharp as the earlier Blu-ray release, but it is worth repeating that the reason for this is that it hasn’t been artificially sharpened and the contrast hasn’t been pushed nearly as far here. This is a much more organic representation of the film’s source.

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

Psycho has been given yet another soundtrack upgrade for this release, but the DTS X transfer isn’t an overwhelming overhaul of the 5.1 TrueHD mix that appeared on the original Blu-ray edition. Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score is allowed to really come to life here, and the mix is truly immersive when his music takes the stage. Other elements are also nicely handled, and this extends to the sounds that breathe life into the quieter moments of the famous shower sequence. Dialogue is always clear and well prioritized throughout the film, so there won’t be any complaints regarding this particular element.

Unfortunately, we feel that Universal has erroneously touted that the disc includes the film’s original mono mix in the DTS Digital Audio format. We were initially disappointed that this track wasn’t included in lossless form, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway since the track isn’t even the film’s original mono but the DTS X track folded down into a mono track.

I’ll admit that the surround mix isn’t a bad one, but it isn’t perfectly faithful to the original soundtrack either. New sounds have been added to the mix, and this might have been more acceptable if it was offered as an option in addition to the original mix in high definition.

BLU-RAY: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The included Blu-ray features the same DTS X audio and a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio reworking of that mix. Our above review applies to this disc as well, but the fake mono option isn’t included here.

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal has included all of the excellent supplements that graced their earlier Blu-ray releases of Psycho. Some might complain that the disc lacks any new supplements, and we will agree that a commentary or featurette about the original theatrical cut would have added value and interest to this important release. However, this is still an incredibly rich supplemental package.

Audio Commentary with Stephen Rebello

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

Alfred Hitchcock Master had a brief exchange with Rebello about this particular release, and he seemed slightly disappointed that Universal didn’t commission a new track that addresses the “uncut” theatrical version of Psycho:

“I spoke at length with Universal reps when they contacted me several times about the original print version of Psycho. They’re recycling my old recorded commentary on the new 4K (when they should have asked me to do a new recording specifically on the hows-and-whys of the original version and subsequent cuts).”Stephen Rebello

The Making of Psycho– (01:34:06)

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

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

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

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

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

Psycho Sound – (09:58)

This brief featurette is new to the Blu-ray disc and looks at the re-mastering process used to create a surround mix from the original mono elements. It is interesting but this is of less interest than the supplements about the film’s production. It is also worth noting that it is not discussing the mix that is included on this disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (06:36)

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

Re-Release Trailers – (01:51)

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

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

This feature gives viewers the opportunity to view the famous shower scene with and without Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. It is actually surprising how differently the scene plays. It actually works quite well without music, but the effect is completely different. The scene is less startling and more devastating without the music. The sounds of the knife tearing through flesh combine with the Marion’s screams and whimpers to make the moment more intimate and tragic when they are played against silence. The horror becomes more personal. There is no doubt that the score contributed to the scene’s success, but for reasons that I would have never guessed. One understands Hitchcock’s reasoning for suggesting that the scene not have music. I realize that this isn’t the line that critics and scholars have sold us. Other people will probably have different reactions than mine, but this supplement will remain interesting for almost everyone.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (15:21)

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but these excerpts remain interesting regardless. The audio clips are presented over clips from the film, which increases one’s enjoyment.

The Psycho Archives:

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

The Shower Scene Storyboards

Posters & Psycho Ads

Lobby Cards

Behind-The-Scenes Photographs

It is worth mentioning that all of these images are presented in standard definition.

The Birds

Picture Quality:

4K UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

This was always going to be the weakest image transfer in this set. The Birds has always been a troublesome title to judge in terms of picture quality. The source materials are inevitably marred to some extent by the special effects. Some shots are naturally second, third, and even fourth generation images. Hedren’s close-ups are filtered so that they present her in the best possible light (a practice that was not at all uncommon in those days). Obviously, these images will not be as immaculate as one expects from most 4K UHD transfers. One really shouldn’t hold this against the transfer as it does offer an obvious upgrade. We see that the HDR has resulted in better color intensity and clarity. Depth sees a notable improvement over the Blu-ray. The image is noticeably more textured, and the film’s natural layer of grain is well managed here.

BLU-RAY: 3 of 5 MacGuffins

Here we have another repurposed 2014 Blu-ray disc, and the transfer is marred by the same production realities that held the new 4K UHD transfer back. The image is a bit softer than one expects in high definition due to the production photography. Colors seem to be accurately rendered, and black levels are often 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 over previous DVD editions.

Sound Quality:

4K UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal also recycles their old 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio that featured on the 2014 Blu-ray, but that mix was always a solid representation of the film’s original sound mix. Alfred Hitchcock’s soundtrack for The Birds was designed with meticulous care, and it is especially important to represent that original mix. All elements are well prioritized, dialogue is intelligible, and bird effects are full and have an aggression that one might expect in a more recent film (even if they aren’t presented in a contemporary surround mix).

BLU-RAY: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc utilizes the same DTS-HD Master Audio that is featured on the 4K UHD disc.

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

All About The Birds – (01:19:49)

Laurent Bouzereau’s feature-length documentary about the making of The Birds is incredibly comprehensive. It covers every aspect of production in explicit detail. 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 and provide their expertise about the film. The viewer will also hear Alfred Hitchcock discuss the film’s ending with Peter Bogdanovich. 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 – (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 – (09:57)

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) – (01:54)

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) – (01:17)

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

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (13:58)

These excerpts from Truffaut’s famous interview with Hitchcock allow fans to hear the director discuss The Birds.

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics – (09:13)

This featurette is essentially a commercial for the Universal catalog and discusses the restoration of a few Universal titles (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) – (09:26)

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

Theatrical Trailer – (05:11)

The theatrical trailer for The Birds is an incredibly creative promotional film featuring Alfred Hitchcock addressing the viewer about 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

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

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

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

Production Photographs

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

Final Words:

The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection includes four of the director’s most beloved titles on the 4K UHD format, and the set would receive an enthusiastic recommendation if it were not for the problematic packaging. Fans who can stand the suspense may wish to wait for these films to be released individually, but some will want to check out these excellent new transfers as soon as possible.

‘Psycho’ Considerations

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Ken Mogg

This article is the third in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

“Sam keeps Norman talking while Lila sneaks into the house to explore …  As we can’t make up our mind whether the danger is coming from in front of her (Mom) or from behind her (Norman) … we yield to a helpless hysteria.” —Raymond Durgnat (Inside Norman Bates, Focus on Hitchcock, 1972)

EXACTLY! RAYMOND DURGNAT’S CLASSIC essay about Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho (spoiler warning: read no further if you haven’t already seen it) shows how well he understood the director’s capacity to outflank his audiences. Here are other examples: About the enthralling sequence of Marion Crane’s long drive with $40,000 stolen from her employer, Durgnat notes her two contrasting encounters. “The cop is saying, ‘I remind you of punishment: turn back!’ the garage hand, ‘I make crime pleasant and easy, go on.'” And again, after motel proprietor Norman Bates has cleaned up the scene of Marion’s murder in her shower by his homicidal Mother and disposed of the body in a nearby swamp, we are torn. Such filial protectiveness! “The spectator’s moral purity,” writes Durgnat, “is being outflanked at both ends—by morbid, pornographic interest, and by a sympathetic pity for charming Norman.”

Durgnat clearly sees how the initial conversation between Norman and the private detective Arbogast works. “In the battle of wits between [them] we sympathize with them both — Marion must be avenged … yet Norman’s motives are [seemingly] selfless …” Even so, Hitchcock has planted a hint of Norman’s more formidable side. Conversing with Marion, Norman leans forward, his eyes blazing angrily, and accuses her, “You mean [put Mother in] an institution, a madhouse?” Already he seems driven to protect his mother, even as next moment he admits, revealingly, that he had considered putting her away. “But,” he adds, “I hate to even think about it.” As critics have said about Psycho and Hitchcock, the director doesn’t cheat — just lets us leap to our wrong conclusions. About how nice Norman is, for example!

Initially, Durgnat isn’t complimentary about Hitchcock’s audience. “In Psycho nothing that isn’t disturbing or tainted ever happens, and to enjoy it (as most people do) is to stand convicted, and consciously convicted, of a lurking nostalgia for evil …” In the end, though, we arrive at “an unsentimental compassion towards insanity.” (The philosopher Schopenhauer claimed that humans are driven by an impersonal, non-rational force—which Psycho surely implies—and advocated an ethics of compassion to countermand it. He termed this ubiquitous force “Will”. Durgnat, for his part, sees Psycho as showing “the brutal Will of destiny”, implicit in Bernard Herrmann’s score and whose personification is the police patrolman, inscrutable behind his dark glasses.1)

At the same time, Herrmann’s score represents subjective dread, both the characters’ (especially Marion’s, on the road) and ours. Dread is fear, or, more specifically, a fear of what one nonetheless desires.2 Marion feels compelled to steal a wad of unmarked $100 bills (whose obnoxious owner had tempted her by remarking, “I never carry more than I can afford to lose”) in order to flee her job and marry boyfriend Sam. Once on the road, the dread starts to beset her. The pounding score alternates with a “yearning” music, for both of which the ubiquitous strings are well-suited.

The Credits

To appreciate how Hitchcock and Herrmann are able to intimate a great deal in a short space—as they do—we need look no further than the credits sequence. It starts with the obligatory Paramount logo shown in a chilling black-and-white image incorporating horizontal lines and total silence. Never has that familiar snow-covered mountain top been more functional!3 A momentary fade to black follows, then a dark grey screen appears. After a beat, Herrmann’s skittering yet pounding music announces itself and the screen is invaded by sets of horizontal black bars which come and go, regularly uncovering white titles underneath, starting with the words “ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S” and then “PSYCHO.” Sometimes the clusters of horizontal bars give way to sets of vertical ones. Meanwhile, the successive titles shatter, and are wiped or seemingly pushed from the screen by the hostile bars. There’s a certain symmetry to all of this, but it’s hard to define — as I’m sure the filmmakers intended. Saul Bass’s description of his work on the titles for Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) comes to mind: the image of a “jagged” arm “expressed the jarring, disjointed existence of the drug addict.” Mutatis mutandis, the Psycho titles anticipate the psychosis of Norman Bates — and, to an extent, of us all. (“We all go a little mad sometimes”, Norman will say.) The blocks of vertical lines resemble city buildings, and at the end of the sequence dissolve to a real cityscape of Phoenix, Arizona.

The black bars will return at the very end of the film (after its final image of the turgid swamp) to obliterate everything. Nihilism anyone?! The question arises of how exactly Psycho manages to exhilarate most viewers. Here’s Durgnat again: “People [who have just seen Psycho] leave the cinema chuckling incredulously, groggy, exhilarated yet hysterical, half-ready to believe that everybody in the world is as mad as Norman.” Hitchcock, with his mastery of subjective cinema in which onscreen events mirror the mind-state of characters and/or viewers (the expressionist Marnie provides a classic example) well understood that none of us knows anything “objectively.” (That was certainly Schopenhauer’s thesis. We can’t comprehend Will, only it’s Representation/s.) Finally, having been put through the wringer by the film, which was an avowed aim of Hitchcock’s, i.e., full audience involvement, and an outcome of his subjective techniques, we heave a sigh of relief that Norman has got what he deserved. Well, it’s ambiguous! But at least we’ve been given a scapegoat!

Early Scenes

As noted, what follows the credits sequence is a view of a city, with the camera gradually descending and slow-zooming into the space between a partially-open window and its sill, then into a darkened hotel room behind it. That image soon lightens, as if our eyes were adjusting to the gloom, and we see that a couple – Sam and Marion – have been making out on a bed. Successive titles have set the scene: “PHOENIX, ARIZONA”, “FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH”, “TWO FORTY-THREE P.M.” Each block of words has slid onto the screen from the side, then off again, just as the black bars did earlier. The fact that the words are all in capitals adds to the block-impression. The precision of date, place, and time is like an apt joke on Hitchcock’s part, no doubt evoking the police procedural Dragnet which had just finished its decade-long run on American TV (1951-1959; revived in 1967). The viewer feels another frisson of excitement to come. The track/zoom beneath the slightly-raised hotel bedroom window in order to show something illicit, i.e., love-making at lunchtime, troubles us not at all! We have paid our admission precisely to experience some vicarious thrills, and here are two Hollywood stars effectively doing our bidding! Carry on, Hitchcock and cast!

Of course, we have arrived too late for actual intimacy. Hitchcock allows us to see just enough necking to stir us; he’ll gratify us with a different excitement later in the film. He was well aware that “suspense” is analogous to sex. Psycho‘s early scenes are effectively about sexual frustration and prelude the images of the mother-dominated Norman spying voyeuristically on Marion. Director Richard Franklin (Psycho II) told me that Hitchcock regretted not being able to imply that Norman was masturbating as he watched Marion take her shower. Note too that there’s a relative “shortage” of women in the supporting cast of Psycho. Certainly, none of them is any match, photographically, for Janet Leigh’s Marion! There’s mousy Caroline in the real estate office where Marion works; there’s Vera Miles as Lila, whom for some reason Hitchcock dressed as dowdily as he could (though he had considered casting her as Madeleine in Vertigo!); and there’s the sheriff’s wife, for whom matters of the bedroom are, at most, to be whispered about.  Interestingly, Psycho‘s several males, excluding Tony Perkins’s Norman, tend to be declamatory, and their virility is not in question. Hitchcock seldom left us uncertain about our allegiances. (Incidentally, I value Sheriff Chambers’s hearty enunciation of “Ar-bo-gast”!) By contrast, Norman is a charming conversationalist, once he gets going! (His opening gambit to Marion, “You eat like a bird!”, is a bit lame — but quite in character, given his boyish disposition!)

Visuals and Screenplay

Just as artfully employed are the film’s visuals. The road scenes, and the Bates Motel, continue the horizontal-lines motif of the credits; the tall buildings of Phoenix, the old house behind the motel, the Fairvale Church with its spire, and the courthouse with its columns, feature vertical designs, again recalling the credits. Marion’s drive to California offers a slice of Americana to go with the reference to “many motels in this area” by the patrolman — shades of Edward Hopper’s 1957 painting “Western Motel”, whose dreary rolling hillside visible through a window is a likely influence.4 Marion’s trip provides a rough parallel to, say, the road scenes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962); pessimistic later films like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1970) and Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) may be seen as likewise drawing on and contributing to such a road genre.

Something I hugely admire is the Psycho screenplay by the young Joseph Stefano.  Himself in psychotherapy at the time (as I remember reading in Stephen Rebello’s richly rewarding Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, 1990), he had a remarkable ear for dialogue and a resourcefulness that quickly earned him Hitchcock’s gratitude. The scene in Sam’s hardware store with the lady buying the pesticide is very clever. The lady reads the label on the can: “They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world …” The idea of mass extermination of “every insect” already sounds excessive, but she keeps going. “But they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless …” Well, that’s as maybe! Is it to the point, though?! Do insects feel pain?! Then comes the topper. “And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless!” Her solicitude sounds somewhat misplaced. What exactly does she mean by “should always be painless”? She’s not talking of war, one assumes. (So much for her “always”.) Perhaps she’s talking of executions?! The deliberate killing of a human being — in which, apparently, she will have a say! (During all of this, the dull, adenoidal shop assistant says nothing.) No doubt the point of the scene, structurally, is that it comes within minutes of the bloody killing of Marion in her shower by Mother. The lady customer’s concern for pain-free death strikes a humane note, but she has no inkling of what has occurred up the road at the Bates Motel. Her opinion can’t help but seem inadequate in the face of what the audience has just witnessed. On the other hand, as a piece of “light relief”, it is perfectly judged — like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth which follows hard on the bloody murder of Duncan by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Stefano had an excellent ear for repetition and other verbal mannerisms (like Norman’s stutter — though that may have been Tony Perkins’s own contribution).  Caroline’s willing diffidence, for example: “Teddy called me; my mother called to see if Teddy called. Oh, your sister called to say …” Or the mad cunning of Norman’s seeming acceptance when he has finally become his Mother: “They’ll see and they’ll say, and [pause] they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly!'” Or Sam’s repeated disgruntled reference to his “sweating” to pay alimony.

Then there is the film’s motif of impatience, of not being able to wait. The two sisters are its embodiment. As Lila says, “Patience doesn’t run in my family.” When Sam announces to her that’s he’s going out to the motel, and that she should stay behind, she complains, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Just sit here and wait?” (“Yeah!”, he responds.) Marion’s impatience to get married is the wellspring of Psycho. Wryly, she tells the stolid Sam, “They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.” She means, apparently, that she feels demeaned by having to have their rushed trysts at lunch-hour. (She will be paying in another way before long, the $40,000 not availing her.) Curiously, her phraseology echoes John Milton’s famous line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It’s another example of the resourceful Stefano’s ability to inject poetry—literally or in effect—into his screenplay.

Psycho is full of little hints and prolepses that lead us on, invoking our curiosity and promising pay-offs. In effect, it is built on the principle enunciated by Freud for telling tendentious, i.e., risqué, jokes: establish a suitable mood, protract the listener’s wait for the punch-line, include lesser climaxes along the way that serve as foreshadowing. One classic Hitchcockian prototype was the amusement park sequence in Strangers on a Train (1951). Recall its river-caves sequence where Bruno begins to stalk Miriam, intending to kill her. His boat follows hers, in which she and her boyfriends are fooling around. In the darkness, we hear a girl scream, but it’s a false alarm — girls do squeal when having fun with their young men! Bruno is biding his time. Relentlessly he tracks her, even allowing her to notice him and giving her a come-on. (The trampish Miriam is happy to flirt back.) The group, including Bruno, crosses the park’s lake to its Island of Love where various couples are making out on the sloping grass. The licentious mood is now pronounced. When Miriam briefly becomes separated from the boys — she may even have engineered it to give Bruno his chance — he moves in for the kill, literally. In Psycho, the structure is punctuated by at least three shocking climaxes with frequent little prolepses, including musical cues (read on). Durgnat is perfectly correct when he says that the cumulative effect reduces us to a helpless hysteria! By the final scenes, we are sufficiently worked up and almost pleading with Hitchcock to deliver his coup de grace.

Techniques

One of the director’s unfailing techniques was to work closely with Bernard Herrmann to arouse audience expectations, then relax the tension for a time. (There is a rhythm of suspense.) The score contains any number of ascending and descending passages, intimations of what this film is capable of, and what it will deliver, again and again, and again, i.e., its three main climaxes. Likewise, the script titillates us with little references that are only explained later. Norman refers to his mother’s involvement with a man, after her husband died, who “could have talked her into anything”. Only, when he died too, it was “just too great a shock”. “And,” adds Norman, “the way he died …” He trails off and changes the subject. Later we find out that the shock was Norman’s as much as his mother’s. (In fact, her intention to re-marry had already, in the psychiatrist’s words, “pushed him over the line” and he “killed them both”.) When Lila and Sam go to visit Sheriff Chambers, he mentions in passing “that bad business out [at the Bates Motel] about ten years ago.” Our ears prick up, but we have to wait until given a further clue about how “Norman’s mother has been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for the past ten years”.  Confused, we still don’t know the details of “that bad business out there.” Finally, the Sheriff describes what he calls a murder-suicide: “Mrs. Bates poisoned this guy she was involved with, when she found out he was married, then took a helping of the same stuff herself. Strychnine.” (Clearly, the police concluded that gentle Norman had nothing to do with it!) And again, when in an overhead high long-shot, already used for the murder of Arbogast, Norman carries Mother downstairs, we hear her protest at being taken to the fruit-cellar: “You hid me there once, boy, and you won’t do it again, not ever again.”  Again confused, we wonder to what occasion she is referring. Only when the psychiatrist clears up matters at the end — in a necessary scene that has been, I think, unfairly maligned5 — do we hear that Norman substituted a weighted coffin for his mother’s body, and, drawing on his taxidermy skills, kept the treated body in the cellar.

Metaphysics

There’s a metaphysical truth underpinning Psycho, giving it weight. In 1960, after completing the film, Hitchcock told an interviewer: “Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.” The film’s psychiatrist speaks of reality coming “too close” to Norman, pushing him over the line into madness. Which is tantamount to saying that Norman represents something in all of us. Compare again Schopenhauer’s assertion that we are all bound in subjectivity, that we cannot know the one Will (though we may, he thought, sense it working in, and through, us), only its manifestation in endless Representations. But is your set of Representations ultimately any more real than mine?!

Generally, Hitchcock’s films draw a lot of their suggestive power from what I’ll call their Vague Symbolism.6 I’m thinking, for example, of the role Hitchcock assigns to Psycho‘s stuffed birds (an owl with outspread wings, a perching crow, a pheasant).  And why, for that matter, is Norman himself given bird-like gestures (arms spread out, or twice “flapping” his upraised palm at Marion as if to say, agreeably, “Don’t trouble yourself!”).  As noted, he tells Marion in that same scene, “You eat like a bird!”  Later, Mother defends herself by putting all the blame on Norman: “As if I could do anything but just sit and stare like one of his stuffed birds.” Even Marion, at the end of the parlor scene, as she leaves to go to her room, trails her arm behind her like a wounded bird.  Hitchcock loved such visual poetry, using images – “pure cinema”, he often called it – to say things beyond the everyday power of words to evoke. You might say that he was suggesting parallels between the diversity of the bird realm and the human realm — both have their aggressors and their victims, for example – and again Schopenhauer comes to mind, for his insistence that there is an unbroken continuity between humans and animals: all are part of Will (roughly, the life-force).

Here’s a different form of repetition, which may again suggest the life-force: again and again in the early scenes, Marion’s wide eyes are highlighted, as when, catching up after her lunchtime assignation with Sam, she applies make-up at her desk in the office. Then, when she goes on the road, we are again treated to those same eyes, belonging to the vivacious Janet Leigh. Gradually, though, the glare of the road, and — after night descends — the oncoming headlights of other cars, take their toll, and Marion’s eyes narrow. At one moment, she seems in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Precisely then, the illuminated “Bates Motel” sign looms up and, fatefully, Marion pulls in. Marion’s murder in her shower — occasioning unprecedented shock and horror for the audience — is aptly underlined by a bravura cut from an extreme close-up of blood running down a plughole to a view of her now lifeless eye, then an incredible sustained pull-back to take in the bedroom and the unattended money, concealed in a folded newspaper. Then on to the open window and a view of the tall house behind the motel. From one of its windows, presumably, the one where we saw Mother pacing when Marion first arrived in the rain (a sound now replaced by that of the still-running shower in Marion’s cabin), comes the voice of Norman: “Mother!  Oh God!  Mother, mother!  Blood, blood!”

In some ways, the wordless scene where Norman, the good, dutiful son, cleans up the shower stall and bath (and, at the last minute, heedlessly tosses the newspaper concealing the stolen money into the boot of Marion’s car alongside her body wrapped in a shower-curtain — a grim parallel there), then sinks the car in the nearby swamp, is my favorite scene in Psycho. (Another is the entire road sequence. Another is Norman and Marion’s conversation.) Here, too, there’s an echo of Macbeth, as when Lady Macbeth says, dismissively and almost facetiously, “A little water clears us of this deed!” Only, Hitchcock wants to underline his grim situation in a cinematic way, at the same time giving us a “breather” after all that has just happened. Once Norman has stowed Marion’s body in the boot, he returns with a mop and pail to clean up. In a “prelude” that signals what will follow, he washes his bloodied hands in the basin. The music has gone high and eerie. His movements are rapid and efficient: no namby-pamby dabbing for Norman. Then he moves on to the bigger task of cleaning up the entire shower stall and bathroom. Again he does the job efficiently, and we watch, riveted. By now, the music is performing little swirling movements of its own in apt curlicues that seem to chase each other, maintaining the eeriness. In retrospect, we can appreciate that they are already evoking the title of the film, a mind that is unhinged (no wonder that Norman had spoken of his dislike of “creepy smells”).

But that’s enough. Psycho is primarily a film to be seen — and lived through. In North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock had Thornhill say, near the end, “I never felt more alive!” It’s the journey that Hitchcock offers us, that is so rewarding. Over and again!

***

Notes

  1. Too dogmatic? By Durgnat’s own description, the agreeable car-dealer California Charlie is part of what constitutes the Will that impels us all. (After all, Will is ubiquitous.)
  1. Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread defined Dread as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy”.
  1. Leading the way, Saul Bass’s opening titles for North by Northwest (1959) incorporated a stylised MGM lion roaring against a sinister green background.

4.  Hitchcock acknowledged his admiration for Hopper’s paintings — among which, of course, is “House by the Railroad” (1925), a palpable model for the Psycho house.

Edward Hopper - House by the Railroad (1925)

  1. Employing a culinary metaphor, someone has said that many reviewers and critics appear to “have never been in the kitchen” — meaning, they’ve not considered every aspect of what it takes to prepare a balanced and satisfying meal.
  1. I don’t mean the elusive “figure in the carpet” of an author’s work, as incorporated in the title of Henry James’s novella (1896) to which Penelope Houston referred in her denigratory article on Hitchcock in the Autumn 1963 Sight and Sound. But nor do I mean a simple symbol like the final image of North by Northwest (a train entering a tunnel) which Hitchcock admitted was a phallic symbol!

***

Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999, revised 2008) covers every film “in loving detail” (Bill Krohn). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on “Hitchcock’s Literary Influences” for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (Wiley Blackwell 2011,  2014), and an essay on “The Cutting Room” in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012).

Rear Window: In the Heat of the Night

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Robert Jones

This article is the first in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release ofThe Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

 “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine?” —Uncle Charlie Oakley (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943)

In what is arguably the grimmest character portrayal in any Alfred Hitchcock film, Joseph Cotten gives voice to the darkest worldview of any of the director’s legendary villains. In Shadow, con man Uncle Charlie’s darkness is alien to the sunny outlook of his extended family in Santa Rosa, California. But, in his 1954 Paramount release Rear Window, the audience gets to witness Uncle Charlie’s malignant philosophy as legendary director Alfred Hitchcock rips open the backs of a block of apartments in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Hitchcock personally regarded Shadow of a Doubt as his best film, a view he maintained even after he produced and directed what is widely regarded as the triad of his greatest films: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). This is quite telling: Hitch called his method of moviemaking “subjective.” From the construction of his screenplays, to the camerawork and editing that tell the movie’s story from the points-of-view of the characters that people his films, to the audience identifying with their heroes, heroines, and heavies, Hitchcock conjured films that were deeply personal.

Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock’s ultimate projection of this philosophy of filmmaking. The movie’s theme is confinement. This is the third time Hitchcock explored this theme, by putting all the action in a single setting. His first experiment with single-set motion pictures, Lifeboat (1944), takes place in a rescue vessel as its eight occupants try to survive being stranded at sea. It was filmed in a tank built on a 20th Century Fox soundstage.

Hitch’s next entry in this genre he helped to create, Rope (1948), took place in an elaborate Manhattan penthouse apartment set, from which we can see New York City’s majestic skyline; the entire movie was filmed in a “single take,” that is, in eight sequential takes of ten minutes apiece, that flowed one to the next. Rope was Hitchcock’s most ambitious project to date, although it did poorly at the box office.

With Rear Window, however, Hitchcock ratcheted the ambition to eleven: A set of thirty-one apartments (a dozen of which were fully furnished) was built on one of Paramount’s sound stages. The floorboards were removed in sections to extend the set’s courtyard down into what had been the basement.

Motion pictures employ the art of illusion-making, and Rear Window is no exception. What you see is not what you see, but what you think you see. When I attended film school at Manhattan’s Hunter College, one of my professors mentioned how adventurous movie buffs would find their way to 125 West 9th Street, only to eventually find out that not a single second of footage was ever shot in New York! (However, Hitchcock’s insistence on verisimilitude can still be found in the rear window courtyard found at 125 Christopher Street, which was the source inspiration for Rear Window.)

The movie’s titles open up in a dolly-forward shot before cutting to a long panning shot of the self-encased courtyard, apartment buildings, and their denizens. After panning across the backyard flats of a Greenwich Village neighborhood, the camera returns home to find the movie’s protagonist, photojournalist L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart appearing in his second Hitchcock film). Hitchcock is giving us Jefferies’s backstory in a masterpiece of mise-en-scène and exposition. In one traveling pan, Hitch and cinematographer Robert Burks let the reader intuit what they need to know about Jefferies, to set up the movie’s premise:

  1. Stewart is asleep, sweat beading on his brow, in a wheelchair.
  2. He’s wearing a full leg cast that reads, “Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies.”
  3. A thermometer at an open window reads ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit. (These were in the days before most people had home air conditioning.)
  4. Next, the camera stops at a smashed up press camera, then resumes its motion.
  5. A photograph on the wall shows two race cars colliding, with a dislodged wheel flying right at you.
  6. An assortment of framed photographs, cameras, press plates, and a stack of magazines.

In forty-two seconds, Hitchcock has given us everything we need to know about who L.B. Jefferies is, what he does for a living, and how he got in this predicament. It would have taken a more conventional director of the same era at least ten minutes to explain all this through dialogue—and even then, the tale would have come off as so far-fetched and convoluted as to defy belief.

The story of Rear Window is quite simple: Jefferies (known to friends and co-workers as “Jeff”), confined to a wheelchair in a cramped Manhattan apartment, whiles away his time by observing the daily dramas of a cast of colorful characters out his back window. Jeff doesn’t even know his neighbors who populate the stage of apartment windows, doorways, and fire escapes of their own daily dramas. The characters all are named by their physical features or occupations: “Miss Torso,” the ballet dancer (Georgine Darcy), “Miss. Hearing Aid,” the over the hill sculptress (Jesslyn Fax), “The Songwriter,” constantly composing at his piano (Ross Bagdasarian), “The Newlywed Couple,” who just moved into a small apartment next to Jeff (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport), “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the frustrated middle-aged single (Judith Evelyn), and “The Childless Couple” who sleep with their dog on the fire escape to escape the heat (Sara Berner and Frank Cady). And, so on.

When I introduced my kids to Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, I chose Rear Window. Everything is so elemental, even more than a stage play. It’s as though each apartment Jimmy Stewart is peering at through his window is a comic strip panel, where stories unfold, step-by-step. Hitch and screenwriter John Michael Hayes give starkly definable roles and tasks to their inhabitants. Their behaviors, with their ups and downs, follow predictable routines. They become stand-ins for how Hitchcock casts his pictures, as Stewart stands in for Hitchcock, a giant master of puppets with a doll’s house view of his Lilliputian neighbors.

While the world outside Jeff’s window is two-dimensional, inside, not so much. Everyone who enters complicates his life, from his editor (the voice of Gig Young, via telephone), the insurance company nurse, Stella (the irascible, wisecracking Thelma Ritter), and his fashion model girlfriend, Lisa (played with a spring in her step and a lilt in her voice by a young Grace Kelly) all come and parry with the temporary inconvenienced invalid.

Jeff is cranky, bristling to everyone he speaks—often contradicting himself. He tries to one-up everyone. “Oh, stop sounding stuffy!” to editor who wants him to stay put and heal. To the working class Stella, he switches gears and comes off as stuffy to Ritter’s bluntness, in riposte to her story about how she predicted the 1929 stock market crash: “Uh, Stella, in economics, a kidney ailment has no relationship to the stock market. None, whatsoever.” He’s contentious with Lisa, who wants to turn him into a corporate man, desperately trying to domesticate him and shed his Jeep and pith helmet world traveler life, in exchange for a buttoned-down corporate persona. He’s become a man uncomfortable in his own skin, because his skin is encased in a “plaster cocoon.”

And, every day and night, he peers out the window, and slowly realizes how powerless he really is on the stage of his own recurring dramas. Until, on yet another sweltering night, there is a change. The drabbest of his neighbors, a costume jewelry salesman across the way, becomes the object of his focus: Jeff hears a woman’s scream in the dark, and suddenly becomes curious about the seeming disappearance of the salesman’s wife.

Raymond Burr’s portrayal of door-to-door salesman, Lars Thorwald, is a study in the evil of banality. He lays bare the ugly truth of Uncle Charlie’s dictum of ripping the fronts off houses and finding porcine inhabitants. But, unlike Charlie’s lady-killing charmer, Thorwald is uninspired, humorless, and drab—there is nothing dashing or cunning about him. Jeff nonetheless becomes obsessed with him, spying on him with binoculars and a telephoto lens mounted on his SLR camera. Stewart wields the camera like an M-1 carbine, lining up Thorwald in his sights.

He finds himself in his element again, and convinces Lisa that something sinister is afoot. Enter Jeff’s Army buddy and now police detective Lt. Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who has a rational explanation to explain everything Jeff has witnessed:

Doyle: You didn’t see the killing or the body. How do you know there was a murder?

Jeff: Because everything this fellow’s done has been suspicious. Trips at night in the rain. Knives, saws, trunks with rope, and now a wife that isn’t there anymore.

Doyle: I admit it does have a mysterious sound. But it could be any number of things for the wife disappearing. Murder is the least likely.

Could Jeff be mistaken? Is he letting his imagination get the better of him, as Joan Fontaine did in Suspicion (1941)? In the most subtle use of subjective storytelling, Jeff’s asleep in his wheelchair while missing the most crucial piece of evidence in his murder theory: Lars Thorwald leaves his apartment with a woman who’s obviously his wife, en route to the train station. By disclosing to the viewer what he’s pointedly failed to reveal to Jeff, Hitchcock always leaves the viewer thinking, and staying one step ahead of the picture’s hero. The director’s conceit pays off big-time by movie’s end.

In trying to relate his disappointment over Lisa, Stewart confides to Stella, “She’s too perfect, she’s too talented, she’s too beautiful, she’s too sophisticated, she’s too everything but what I want.” When we first see Grace Kelly, she’s exquisitely tailored in an “A steal at $1,100!” ($11,000 in today’s money) imported silk Italian dress, right off the modeling runway.

Lisa and Jeff are constantly at loggerheads. She wants to turn him into Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and he wants to make a homebody and travel companion of her. And, over the course of the motion picture, Kelly’s wardrobe gradually becomes plainer and less extravagant: by movie’s end, she’s wearing floral print house dresses, and simple red cotton blouses and blue jeans. Expertly tailored, of course, but much more accessible to the audience’s expectations of 1950s middle class womanhood.

In other words, without a word uttered, Grace Kelly transformed herself from Madeleine into Judy!

Rear Window is a tour de force of filmmaking. In the sixty-six years since its release, it has been one of Hitchcock’s most beloved motion pictures. Yet, a schism still exists between its partisans, and those who prefer Vertigo, which was voted atop Sight and Sound’s poll in 2012.

Most of Alfred Hitchcock’s output is constantly judged against his ultimate triad of masterpieces: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). He set such a high standard, his “lesser” films are constantly found wanting when juxtaposed with these three iconic movies. I can’t even count how many times otherwise objective critics and movie historians have complained that solid movies like Family Plot (his last picture, in 1976), The Wrong Man (1956), and Secret Agent (1936) fall far short of the standard Hitchcock set with Vertigo. I think they’re missing the point: only Vertigo is Vertigo; finding Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony falling far short of his Ninth Symphony is missing the point entirely. A great work of art must first be judged on its own standards.

For those armchair critics who find Rear Window lacking in subtlety of visual sophistication, I submit it is upon Rear Window’s shoulders which Alfred Hitchcock’s later masterpieces stand.

* * *

Robert Jones is a former Army photojournalist and the author and photographer of Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye (along with Dan Auiler and Aimee Sinclair). The book is currently available for purchase at amazon.com.

Blu-ray Review: Alfred Hitchcock – The Ultimate Collection

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: October 17, 2017

Region: Region A

Notes: These films are also available individually with standard Blu-ray packaging and as a part of The Masterpiece Collection.

Universal owns the rights to more Alfred Hitchcock titles than any other studio, and they certainly milk these properties for every penny that they are able to squeeze out of his admirers. However, one really shouldn’t complain since this gives fans an opportunity to own these films with plenty of choice as to how the discs are packaged. Each of the films available in this collection have been available on Blu-ray for quite some time (both as individually packaged titles and as a part of The Masterpiece Collection), and these image and sound transfers are the same ones utilized for those earlier releases. What’s more, these discs include the same supplemental material. Interested parties can read more detailed information about each of the discs included in this set by clicking on the individual links below:

Saboteur

Shadow of a Doubt

Rope

Rear Window

The Trouble with Harry

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Psycho

The Birds

Marnie

Torn Curtain

Topaz

Frenzy

Family Plot

What really sets this release apart from the previous releases is that it includes two new standard definition DVDs that focus on his television work:

The Best of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’

This new disc showcases a single Alfred Hitchcock directed episode from all seven seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The following episodes are included:

Revenge (Season 1, Episode 1)

The series premiere of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is one of the show’s best episodes. It first aired on October 02, 1955 and starred Vera Miles and Ralph Meeker. Those who admire The Andy Griffith Show will also notice Frances Bavier in a supporting role. The story by Samuel Blas follows Carl and Elsa Spann, a newlywed couple just starting their life. Elsa has recently suffered a nervous breakdown but seems to be on her way to recovery. Unfortunately, Carl returns home from work one evening to find that his wife has been attacked. When the police prove to be unhelpful, Carl decides to get justice on his own.

Vera Miles gives a great performance here—a performance that looks forward to her portrayal of Rose Balestrero in Alfred Hitchcock’s under-appreciated docudrama, The Wrong Man.

Mr. Blanchard’s Secret (Season 2, Episode 13)

Mr. Blanchard’s Secret pales in comparison. The episode first aired on December 23, 1956 and starred Mary Scott, Robert Horton, Dayton Lummis, and Meg Mundy. The story by Emily Neff revisits some of the themes better explored in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Babs Fenton, a housewife with an overactive imagination who fancies herself a writer, believes that Mr. Blanchard has murdered his wife. However, her suspicions are called into serious question when Mrs. Blanchard shows up at their door looking to be very much alive. Babs alters her theory as to the reason behind Mr. Blanchard’s suspicious behavior only to be proven wrong once again.

Lamb to the Slaughter (Season 3, Episode 28)

Lamb to the Slaughter is rightly mentioned amongst the series best episodes. It aired on April 13, 1958 and stars Barbara Bel Geddes (who portrayed Midge in Vertigo that same year). The story by Roald Dahl follows a devoted housewife named Mary Maloney who decides to kill her cheating husband with a frozen leg of lamb rather than let him leave her. What follows is classic Hitchcock.

Poison (Season 4, Episode 1)

Poison—which was based upon another tale by Dahl—first aired on October 05, 1958 and stars Hitchcock alumnus Wendell Corey and James Donald. Harry Pope (Donald) wakes up with a poisonous snake in his bed. Worse, it finds a comfortable place to rest right on his chest. The entire episode is devoted to solving this tense predicament.

Arthur (Season 5, Episode 1)

Arthur first aired on September 27, 1959 and stars Laurence Harvey in the title role. Unusually for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, the story begins with Arthur standing amongst a large number of chickens as he addresses the audience directly. After this opening monologue, we flash back in time as he tells the viewer how he killed his gold-digging girlfriend and was able to get away with it. The story itself is rather amusing, but the framing device at the beginning and end doesn’t work very well (possibly because there is already an introduction and epilogue performed by Hitchcock).

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat (Season 6, Episode 1)

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is more benign than many episodes, but it has a very similar sense of irony. It originally aired on September 27, 1960 and stars Audrey Meadows, Les Tremayne, and Stephen Chase. The story by Roald Dahl follows Mrs. Bixby as she visits her secret lover “the Colonel,” who ends their affair but offers her a mink coat as a parting gift. She isn’t sure how to explain the coat to her husband, so she pawns the item without putting a description on the ticket. She then tells her husband that she has found the ticket and instructs him to turn it in for the pawned item. Obviously, things aren’t going to work out in quite the way that she expects.

Bang! You’re Dead! (Season 7, Episode 2)

Bang! You’re Dead! originally aired on October 17, 1961 and is the final episode that Alfred Hitchcock directed for the original half-hour series. It was based on a story by Margery Vosper and stars Billy Mumy as a young Jackie Chester—a spoiled six-year-old who mistakes a loaded gun for a gift from his uncle. The child then proceeds to pretend he is an outlaw and points it at the random people he meets throughout the day. It is only a matter of time before he actually pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, his family has discovered the mistake and tries frantically to locate him. Hitchcock’s gift for building suspense is evident throughout the duration.

Special Features:

This disc also includes a single special feature entitled Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Look Back. Gary Leva’s 15 minute featurette is far from a comprehensive examination of the series, but the retrospective interviews with Norman Lloyd, Hilton A. Green, and Patricia Hitchcock do reveal some general information about how the show was produced and those responsible for its success.

The Best of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’

The second new disc showcases a single episode from all three seasons of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Unlike the first disc, only the first of these episodes is actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock since he only directed a single episode of this series. The following episodes are included:

I Saw the Whole Thing (Season 1, Episode 4)

I Saw the Whole Thing is the only episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that was actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It originally aired on October 11, 1962 and is based on a short story by Henry Cecil. Hitchcock alumnus John Forsythe portrays Michael Barnes in this Rashomon-like courtroom drama with an interesting twist. Barnes has been accused of causing a fatal car accident, but he insists that he is completely innocent and acts as his own attorney at his trial. In court, he proves that the various eyewitnesses called by the prosecution are unreliable.

Three Wives Too Many (Season 2, Episode 12)

Three Wives Too Many was directed by Joseph M. Newman and was based on a short story by Kenneth Fearing. It aired on January 03, 1964 and stars Hitchcock alumnus Teresa Wright, Linda Lawson, Jean Hale, and Dan Duryea. The story follows a bigamist who is suspected of murdering his various wives.

Death Scene (Season 3, Episode 20)

Death Scene was directed by Harvey Hart and was based on a story by Helen Nielsen. The episode aired on March 08, 1965 and features Hitchcock alumnus Vera Miles as Nicky Revere, the daughter of a movie director named Gavin Revere (John Carradine). It is best that viewers see this particular episode knowing as little as is possible about the actual story, but it is certainly one of the most memorable of the hour-long episodes.

Special Features:

This disc includes a single featurette entitled Fasten Your Seatbelt: The Thrilling Art of Alfred Hitchcock. This six minute fluff piece includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Eli Roth, and Joe Carnahan, but none of these filmmakers say anything particularly enlightening. It is almost like an EPK created to sell the idea of Hitchcock’s greatness without ever revealing anything that isn’t immediately obvious.

Promotional photograph for 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' from 1962, taken by Gabor 'Gabi' Rona

This is a promotional photograph for ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ that was taken in 1962 by Gabor ‘Gabi’ Rona.

It’s nice to have both of these new standard definition discs included here, but it is impossible not to wonder why Universal didn’t choose to release discs with each of the seventeen Hitchcock-directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his single episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour instead. Such a collection would have been a much more appropriate and satisfying addition to the package. What’s more, this approach would’ve only required one more disc (three instead of the two). Actually, it is ridiculous that Universal hasn’t already released these episodes together in a single collection.

In addition, one cannot help but lament some of the choices made by Universal as to which episodes to include. Some of these episodes are inferior to other Hitchcock-directed episodes from that respective season. For example, season two’s One More Mile to Go is vastly superior to Mr. Blanchard’s Secret. In fact, it is one of the best of the entire series. Of course, this particular issue wouldn’t be a problem if all of the Hitchcock directed episodes had been included.

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The packaging is very similar to Universal’s Masterpiece Collection, but the artwork is somewhat different. It is of course a matter of taste as to which is better, but most should agree that the design is just as pleasing as the one utilized for that earlier release. From an aesthetic standpoint, this collection is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, it is the sort of design that seems special on the surface but actually provides the consumer with less value than if each film had been provided with a sturdy individual Blu-ray case.

It is time for studios to do away with these book-style sets that house the discs in folder-like sleeves. This leaves the discs vulnerable to scratching and other types of damage, and disc protection should always be the first priority when designing these collections. What’s more, it doesn’t allow the collector to arrange their collections in the manner that they might wish. (This reviewer prefers chronological arrangement).

The Ultimate Collection

This particular book-style release devotes two pages to each of the films included therein. The first of the two pages features the film’s one sheet while the second includes a quote, a brief description of the film, and a list of bonus features. A promotional still from the film is also utilized. Since this is the same information that one might find on the slip sleeve of any regular release, it only gives one the appearance of additional value when in actuality it is probably much cheaper than including individual cases for each title.

A small softbound book entitled “The Master of Suspense” is also included. There are around 58-60 pages worth of material here (depending on how one chooses to count them), and it does add a bit of value to the package. It includes some extremely general biographical information about Hitchcock and his career, a few paragraphs about his leading men, a page that focuses on “The Hitchcock Blondes,” two pages that focus on Edith Head (including a handful of costume sketches), two pages that showcase Saul Bass (with a series of screenshots from the title sequences for Vertigo and Psycho), a page about Bernard Herrmann, a half page about “The MacGuffin,” and another half page about the director’s cameo appearances. After these subjects, the book focuses on each of the films included in this set. Film trivia, artwork, storyboards, photographs, letters, and memorandum have been included throughout these pages in Universal’s effort to create an attractive keepsake. There isn’t much in the way of information here (and some of it borders on being erroneous), but it does make for a fun reading experience.

Final Words:

The back sleeve of this release screams “The Best of Alfred Hitchcock,” and one must admit that the set does include a number of the master’s best films. However, it is ridiculous to claim that the set represents Hitchcock’s best work because some of his best films aren’t included here while some of his worst films are present. For example, few would rank Topaz above Notorious or Strangers on a Train. This set is simply a complete collection of the films that Universal actually owns (with North by Northwest included as a healthy bonus due to a licensing trade).

It is certainly an impressive collection of films and those that don’t mind the folder-book packaging might wish to grab this set while supplies last—that is if they do not already own these films individually or as part of The Masterpiece Collection. The two new DVDs might not be worth an upgrade (especially since they weren’t given a new 1080P transfer for this release).

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

blu-ray-cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 20, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 80 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: 2.0 English Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish

Ratio: 1.78:1

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

Cannes One Sheet

Cannes Film Festival’s One Sheet

“It’s a film that I was very excited about making because it’s a book that has meant a great deal to me for – I mean I’m fifty-five – so for the last forty-three years of my life. Hitchcock’s work, and Truffaut’s work to a certain extent as well – but Hitchcock’s work has for me a deeper connection because I started looking at his films right around the same time as I read the book, and I’ve been re-watching them over and over since then. I’ve never even started to count how many times I’ve seen Vertigo or Rear Window or Psycho or Saboteur or I Confess – and so, in that sense as well, it was something that was exciting for me. Then there was the idea of making a movie that really looked at the question of filmmaking, at a moment when the idea of filmmaking is a little bit debased – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – and looked at it in new and surprising ways. So those were all the things that were in my mind.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

An understanding and appreciation of the importance of Truffaut’s landmark text can be felt throughout Jones’ remarkably engaging documentary. It is reasonable for cinephiles to temper their excitement about such a film with certain misgivings. Is it possible that the documentary might overshadow or replace the essential book that inspired it, or will it inspire further interest and appreciation for the text? We are more than a little pleased to report that the latter is the case.

François Truffaut would be quite happy to know that his book is still influencing the landscape of cinema and that it remains the single point from which all other Hitchcock scholarship revolves. After all, it was his intention to change the critical and public perception of Hitchcock as a mere entertainer or expert technician.

 “Nowadays the work of Alfred Hitchcock is admired all over the world. Young people who are just discovering his art through the current re-release of Rear Window and Vertigo, or through North by Northwest, may assume his prestige has always been recognized, but this is far from being the case…

…His fame had spread further throughout the world via the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the mid-fifties. But American and European critics made him pay for his commercial success by reviewing his work with condescension, and by belittling each new film…

From my past career as a critic, in common with all the young writers from Cahiers du Cinéma, I still felt the imperative need to convince. It was obvious that Hitchcock, whose genius for publicity was equaled only by that of Salvador Dalí, had in the long run been victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers and his deliberate practice of deriding their questions. In examining his films, it was obvious that he had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues. It occurred to me that if he would, for the first time, agree to respond seriously to a systematic questionnaire, the resulting document might modify the American critics’ approach to Hitchcock.

That is what this book is all about… I dare say that this book achieved this result. At the time it was published, however, a young American film professor predicted: ‘This book will do more harm to your reputation in America than your worst film.’ As it happens, Charles Thomas Samuels was mistaken. He committed suicide a year or two later, undoubtedly for other reasons. In fact, from 1968 on, American critics began to take Hitchcock’s work more seriously. Today, a movie like Psycho is regarded as a classic, and young film buffs have adopted Hitchcock wholeheartedly, without begrudging him his success, wealth, and fame.”François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

hitchcock-issue

Of course, things might be quite different today had Hitchcock not agreed to participate. It probably helped that Truffaut was a celebrated filmmaker himself at this point. This was not the case when François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock first met one another.

“That happened in 1955, when Alfred Hitchcock, having completed the location shooting of To Catch a Thief on the Côte d’Azur, came to the Saint-Maurice studios, in Joinville, for the post-synchronization of the picture. My friend Claude Chabrol and I decided to go there and interview him for Cahiers du Cinéma. Armed with a long list of intricate questions and a borrowed tape recorder, we sallied forth in high spirits.

In Joinville, we were directed to a pitch-black auditorium, where a loop showing Cary Grant and Brigitte Auber in a motorboat was being run continuously on the screen. In the darkness, we introduced ourselves to Hitchcock who courteously asked us to wait for him at the studio bar across the courtyard.

Both movie-crazy, thrilled by our brief preview of Hitchcock’s latest work, we emerged into the blinding glare of daylight, literally bursting with excitement. In the heat of our discussion, we failed to notice the dark-grey frozen pond in the middle of the courtyard. With a single step forward, we went over the ledge, landing on a thin layer of ice, which immediately gave way. Within seconds we were immersed in a pool of freezing water and a state of shock. In a hollow voice, I asked Chabrol ‘What about the tape recorder?’ He replied by slowly raising his left arm to hold the case in mid-air with the water bleakly oozing out from all sides like a stream of tears.

Staggering around the sloping basin, unable to reach the edge without sliding right back to the center, we were trapped in a situation straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Eventually, with the helping hand of a charitable bystander, we managed to reach firm ground. A wardrobe mistress who was passing by invited us to follow her to a dressing room where we might take off our clothes and dry out. When we attempted to thank her for her kindness, she said in a businesslike way, ‘What a way to make a living. Are you extras for Rififi?’ Upon learning that we were reporters, she lost all interest and told us to clear out.

A few minutes later, still soaking wet and shivering with cold, we made our way to the bar, where Hitchcock awaited us. He merely looked us over, and without a single comment on our appearance amiably suggested another appointment for that evening at the Hotel Plaza Athénée. A year later, upon spotting us at one of his Paris press conferences, Hitchcock finally acknowledged the incident by saying, ‘Gentlemen, every time I see a pair of ice cubes clicking together in a glass of whiskey, I think of you two.’

We subsequently learned that Hitchcock had embellished the incident with a twist of his own. According to the Hitchcock version, Chabrol was dressed as a priest and I was wearing a gendarme’s uniform when we turned up for the interview.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

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Had Truffaut requested that Hitchcock participate in a career spanning interview in 1955, it is quite likely that the portly genius would have politely declined the request. However, a decade can make quite a difference. When the French auteur sat down to write Hitchcock a letter in the summer of 1962, he wasn’t a journalist or a film critic. He was an admiring fellow-filmmaker.

“Dear Mr. Hitchcock,

First of all, allow me to remind you who I am. A few years ago, in late 1954, when I was a film journalist, I came with my friend Claude Chabrol to interview you at the Saint-Maurice studio where you were directing the post-synchronization of To Catch a Thief. You asked us to go and wait for you in the studio bar, and it was then that, in the excitement of having watched fifteen times in succession a ‘loop’ showing Brigitte Auber and Cary Grant in a speedboat, Chabrol and I fell into the frozen tank in the studio courtyard. You very kindly agreed to postpone the interview which was conducted that same evening at your hotel.

Subsequently, each time you visited Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting you with Odette Ferry, and for the following year you even said to me, ‘Whenever I see ice cubes in a glass of whiskey I think of you.’ One year after that, you invited me to come to New York for a few days and watch the shooting of The Wrong Man, but I had to decline the invitation since, a few months after Claude Chabrol, I turned to film-making myself.

I have made three films, the first of which, The 400 Blows, had, I believe, a certain success in Hollywood. The latest, Jules et Jim, is currently showing in New York. I come now to the point of my letter. In the course of my discussions with foreign journalists and especially in New York, I have come to realize that their conception of your work is often very superficial. Moreover, the kind of propaganda that we were responsible for in Cahiers du Cinéma was excellent as far as France was concerned, but inappropriate for America because it was too intellectual.

Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love for the cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself and it is that which I would like to talk to you about.

I would like you to grant me a tape-recorded interview which would take about eight days to conduct and would add up to about thirty hours of recordings. The point of this would be to distil not a series of articles but an entire book which would be published simultaneously in New York (I would consider offering it, for example, to Simon and Schuster where I have some friends) and Paris (by Gallimard or Robert Laffont), then, probably later, more or less everywhere in the world.

If the idea were to appeal to you, and you agreed to do it, here is how I think we might proceed: I could come and stay for about ten days wherever it would be most convenient for you. From New York I would bring with me Miss Helen Scott who would be the ideal interpreter; she carries out simultaneous translations at such speed that we would have the impression of speaking to one another without any intermediary and, working as she does at the French Film Office in New York, she is also completely familiar with the vocabulary of the cinema. She and I would take rooms in the hotel closest to your home or to whichever office you might arrange.

Here is the work schedule. Just a very detailed interview in chronological order. To start with, some biographical notes, then the first jobs you had before entering the film industry, then your stay in Berlin.

This would be followed by:

1. The British silent films;

2. the British sound films;

3. the first American films for Selznick and the spy films;

4. the two Transatlantic Pictures;

5. the Vistavision period;

6. from The Wrong Man to The Birds.

The questions would focus more precisely on:

a) The circumstances surrounding the inception of each film;

b) the development and construction of the screenplay;

c) the stylistic problems peculiar to each film;

d) the situation of the film in relation to those preceding it;

e) your own assessment of the artistic and commercial result in relation to your intentions.

There would be questions of a more general nature on good and bad scripts, different styles of dialogue, the direction of actors, the art of editing, [and] the development of new techniques, special effects, and color. These would be interspaced among the different categories in order to prevent any interruption in chronology.

The body of work would be preceded by a text which I would write myself and which might be summarized as follows: if overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and became once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.

If this project interests you, I would ask you to let me know how you would like to proceed. I imagine that you are in the process of editing The Birds, and perhaps you would prefer to wait a while?

For my part, at the end of this year, I am due to make my next films: an adaptation of a novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, which is why I would prefer the interviews to take place between 15 July and 15 September 1962.

If you were to accept the proposition, I would gather together all the documents I would need to prepare the four or five hundred questions which I wish to ask you, and I would have the Brussels Cinémathèque screen for me those films of yours with which I am least familiar. That would take me about three weeks, which would mean I could be at your disposal from the beginning of July.

A few weeks after our interviews, the transcribed, edited and corrected text would be submitted to you in English so that you might make any corrections that you considered useful, and the book itself would be ready to come out by the end of this year.

Awaiting your reply, I beg you to accept, dear Mr. Hitchcock, my profound admiration. I remain yours sincerely, Francois Truffaut” François Truffaut (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock, June 02, 1962)

The letter was effective and Alfred Hitchcock soon responded to the proposal with a telegram.

Dear Monsieur Truffaut, Your letter brought tears to my eyes, and I am so grateful to receive such a tribute from you. – Stop – I am shooting The Birds, and this will continue until 15 July, and after that, I will have to begin editing which will take me several weeks. – Stop – I think [that] I will wait until we have finished shooting The Birds, and then I will contact you with the idea of getting together around the end of August. – Stop – Thank you again for your charming letter. – Kind regards. – Cordially yours, Alfred Hitchcock.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Telegram to François Truffaut)

It is easy to understand how such an admiring letter might bring tears to a man’s eyes, and it is clear that Hitchcock was enthusiastic about the book. As fate would have it, the interviews commenced on August 13, 1962—Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday.

“Every morning he would pick us up at the Beverly Hills Hotel to take us to his office at Universal Studios. With each of us wearing a microphone and a sound engineer in the next room recording our voices, we kept up a running conversation from nine to six every day, achieving something of a track record as we talked our way through lunches.

A witty raconteur noted for his entertaining interviews, Hitchcock started out true to form, regaling us with a series of amusing anecdotes. It was only on the third day that he became more sober and thoughtful in spelling out the ups and downs of his career. His assessment of the achievements and the failures was genuinely self-critical, and his account of his doubts, frustrations, and hopes was completely sincere. What emerged as the talks progressed was a striking contrast between Hitchcock’s public image and his real self.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

photograph-of-francois-truffaut-alfred-hitchcock-and-helen-scott-taken-by-photographer-philippe-halsman

This is a photograph of Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, and Helen Scott that was taken by photographer Philippe Halsman.

The process of transcribing the interviews and editing them down into a cohesive book was a bit more difficult and time-consuming than Truffaut had predicted. His originally anticipated “few weeks” turned into years.

“While we were recording these talks with Hitchcock, the final editing of The Birds, his forty-eighth picture, was underway. It took us some four years to transcribe the tapes and gather the photographs. Whenever I met Hitchcock during this period, I would question him in order to update the book I called ‘the Hitchbook.’ The first edition, therefore, published at the end of 1967, concludes with his fiftieth film, Torn Curtain.” François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

The book would eventually be revised to include commentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s final three films and has gone on to change the way that critics look at Alfred Hitchcock’s work. In fact, it has altered film theory in general. Better yet, the project led to a friendship that lasted decades. Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut frequently corresponded and even consulted with one another regarding their current projects. When Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a career-altering film entitled Kaleidoscope (later re-titled Frenzy—but this project should not be confused with his 1972 film), he sent Francois Truffaut the script. Truffaut wrote back with an in-depth letter that included thoughtful script notes. (Universal later forced the director to abandon the project in favor of Topaz.) Truffaut was also among the many speakers when Hitchcock was presented with AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Of course, all of these things are touched upon in this wonderful documentary, but the infamous sound recordings of their trailblazing interview is the thread that holds the entire film together (and our readers will be relieved to note that the result is a better-tailored product than the suit that Norman Lloyd wore in Saboteur). The tapes of these recordings were discovered in the early nineties by Serge Toubiana, who co-wrote the film with Kent Jones.

“I wrote the project because my point of view is very specific because I am the guy who found the tapes a long time ago. It was in 1992. I was making a documentary on Truffaut at the time and I was working in the archives of Truffaut’s office in Les Films du Carrosse with a friend Michel Pascal who co-directed the documentary: Francois Truffaut: Stolen Portraits. I was looking in the archives and I found a big box and I opened it and we saw many reel-to-reel tapes. We put one of the reels on the Nagra and suddenly the voice of Hitchcock was there. It was a miracle, you know. These were the tapes from the famous dialogue between Truffaut and Hitchcock in August 1962 in Universal Studios in Hitchcock’s bungalow. And we had the voices, the three voices: Truffaut’s voice in French, Hitchcock speaking English and Helen Scott who translated, and it was incredible material. We put just a very small extract in the movie we did at the time…

…I read the book when I was very young in the 60s – the first edition in 1966 in France. You know the first edition is very special, it’s not “Hitchcock/Truffaut”–it’s “Le Cinema selon Alfred Hitchcock.” It was such an important book in my education of cinema. For me, this dialogue is one of the most important moments in the story of cinema because you have a young French director who was also an important critic, Francois Truffaut, who was thirty at the time in 1962 and had just made three movies. And you had Alfred Hitchcock who was the master. And this young guy he wanted to make, as he said in the introduction, a cookbook of how Hitchcock made his career as an auteur. So it’s a dialogue between the French theory of auteurs and a Hollywood director who had never won the Oscar but who was very famous as an entertainment director but not [considered] an auteur. And Truffaut wanted to prove that Hitchcock was a master. So it’s a dialogue between French and American cinema.” -Serge Toubiana (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Those who have already read the essential text should still find these audio excerpts fascinating because there are subtle differences that are rather revelatory.

“It comes as a revelation because in the book Hitchcock appears to be very cold, precise, distanced and kind of lacking in humor, except for some not very good jokes that he tells. The tapes are another matter entirely – he’s very warm and very funny and very spontaneous. And Truffaut did not speak a word of English and so he was very dependent on Helen Scott who was translating every word. She got some right, some not so right. Then her translation was amended in France, then he worked on the book, then I believe it was re-translated back into English – that’s the way it reads to me. So it’s a kind of a remove from Hitchcock – so in general, that’s a revelation. Also, the sense of him wondering if he should have spent more time on character is in the book, but you can hear him returning to it in the tapes. That’s fascinating and beautiful and very moving.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

These audio excerpts are illustrated by a wealth of wonderful film clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s vast filmography and are commented upon by ten of cinema’s most respected filmmakers: Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Olivier Assayas, Paul Schrader, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and James Gray. Some of these participants may seem like unusual choices, but this actually illustrates the far-reaching influence of Truffaut’s text. However, one does wonder why certain directors weren’t included in the film. A few obvious examples would be Guillermo del Toro—who considers himself a faithful student of Hitchcock’s, and Brian De Palma—who has made a career of directing blatant Hitchcock homages. However, this is more of an observation than an outright criticism.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is an extremely enjoyable experience and an in-depth appreciation of the landmark text. What is isn’t and what it was never intended to be—and this should be stressed—is a replacement for the landmark book. Cinephiles will still want to read and re-read Truffaut’s tome as it is the definitive source for anyone wishing to learn about the master of suspense. Similar book-length interviews about various filmmakers have been published in the years since but none offer such an in-depth commentary on such a long career or such a truly unique voice in the cinema. In fact, one hopes that the film renews enough interest in the book for publishers to see the potential of a brand-new edition that features a re-edited version of the text that doesn’t exclude quite as much material.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal packages the Blu-ray disk in a standard Blu-ray case with fil related artwork that features a photo of François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that had originally appeared in Truffaut’s landmark book. The photo was later utilized in the artwork for this documentary’s theatrical one-sheet and this is the same artwork featured here.

The disc’s menu makes use of the same photograph and is accompanied by Jeremiah Bornfield’s score.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s AVC encoded image transfer is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect. The interview segments are quite sharp and showcase an excellent level of detail, but the film’s archival footage is sometimes a bit less stellar. However, any shortcomings seem to be inherent in the documentary’s source elements—and these are never distracting. There is some also minor strobing during some of the textual footage, but this is barely noticeable. Most will be more than satisfied with the overall quality.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is really quite great, but the interview driven documentary doesn’t offer much in the way of dynamic surround speaker activity. What it does offer is a solid representation of the film’s original soundtrack—and this is all anyone has a right to expect.

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Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Kent Jones in Conversation with Noah Baumbach – (23:51)

This is essentially more of a conversation about Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, the differences between the audio tapes and the book, how the documentary was shaped, and other such relevant topics. The Q&A was held after the film’s New York première on October 27th, 2015. It is an interesting conversation that never becomes boring even if there isn’t much in the way of revelatory information.

Peter Bogdanovich Remembers Hitchcock – (06:37)

This is the first of four featurettes that are obviously compilations of unused footage shot for the documentary that didn’t make it into the final film. They have each been edited to focus on a particular subject. In the case of this featurette, we have Peter Bogdanovich discussing Alfred Hitchcock and how he became to be associated with the director. It is an interesting little conversation with Bogdanovich, who is always an articulate and interesting interview subject.

An Appreciation of Notorious – (06:16)

Various interview subjects discuss Notorious, and it is clear that the participants have either a fondness or a sincere respect for the film. The observations are always interesting if never revelatory, and fans of the film will be especially happy to spend six minutes of their time watching this nice little featurette. This is probably the strongest of the four featurettes included on the disc, although it would have benefited from showing footage from the actual film.

Rope: Pro and Con – (05:01)

Some of the interview subjects discuss Rope and whether they think it is a good film or merely an interesting failed experiment. A case for both sides is argued, but there seems to be a slight preference for footage where participants discuss why the film doesn’t work. It is an interesting little featurette but fans of the film might be a bit put off.

Richard Linklater on Truffaut – (03:52)

This is a short piece that finds Richard Linklater discussing his admiration for Truffaut and the “Hitchbook.” There isn’t much in the way of information here, but it is a nice little surface level conversation. One of the more interesting comments made here is that Truffaut probably could have added another film to his filmography in the time it took him to prepare the book.

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Final Words:

Hitchcock/Truffaut is one of the absolutely essential documentaries concerning Alfred Hitchcock and it comes to Blu-ray with a solid transfer from Universal Studios.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock: Revised Edition, October 2, 1985)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebook’s, 1999)

Unknown (Hitchcock/Truffaut Press Kit, 2015)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

 

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho & The Birds

PSYCHO - POPART

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. This exact same transfer is being released with the same supplemental features in this new Pop Art edition of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition

THE BIRDS - POPART

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The Birds (1963) is also being honored with a new Pop Art edition of the film that includes the same transfer with the same supplemental features available on Universal’s previous release of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

Blu-ray Review: Family Plot

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 03, 2013

Region: Region A

Length: 02:00:04

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

01 - Title

“I didn’t say, ‘I’d like to do a kidnapping film.’ What interested me about a story like Family Plot was that it was two sides of a triangle meeting at a certain point… That was the shape of the film, and the climax — the apex came when these two totally unrelated elements came together. And they came together just as the leading lady rings the front door bell of the house which contains a kidnapped bishop. And that’s what appealed to me was the structure of this story, and the kidnapping and all those elements were part of it but certainly no great inspiration to me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

It is interesting that Alfred Hitchcock would follow the dark and cynical Frenzy with the light and whimsical Family Plot. While it is true that there is a fair amount of cynicism in Family Plot, it is filtered through a rather optimistic lens. This is especially true when one compares it with Alfred Hitchcock’s source of inspiration for the film. The script was adapted from Victor Canning’s “The Rainbird Pattern,” but the differences between the novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film go far beyond any changes that were made to the plot (and there were many). The tone of the novel was dark and pessimistic about much more than the characters and situations described in Canning’s story. Practically every character is met with a bitter end. It was much more in keeping with the tone of Frenzy. One can only speculate as to the director’s reasoning behind turning the film into a light entertainment, but I believe that it indicates a level of hope possessed by the 76 year old Hitchcock… or perhaps I merely hope that this is what it represents.

Considering that his intention was to create a much lighter entertainment, it seems somewhat unusual that he should ask his former Frenzy collaborator to help him turn his ideas for his new project into a screenplay.

“After deciding on The Rainbird Pattern, the director offered the script assignment to Anthony Shaffer, who read the book but balked at ‘the sort of version that Hitch was describing – a sort of light, Noel Coward – Madame Arcati thing with Margaret Rutherford.’ … Shaffer agreed to think about it, but he had flashed the wrong signals, and Hitchcock phoned him a week later to say that his agent had made excessive demands. Shaffer felt Hitchcock was dissembling in order to avoid later confrontation over his approach.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Hitchcock rebounded from Shaffer with ease, and decided to contact a more appropriate collaborator: Ernest Lehman. It isn’t difficult to follow his train of thought. After all, Lehman had worked on North by Northwest with the director.

“I felt very comfortable being back with him. However, before long I realized that our relationship was quite different. Many years had passed. We had both had successes and failures. We were different people now.” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Despite the changes in both men, Alfred Hitchcock’s working method was very much the same as it had been while the two men were writing North by Northwest.

“The first forty-five minutes… are always warm up time, during which neither of you would dare commit the gross unpardonable sin of mentioning the work at hand. There are more attractive matters to be discussed first… How much more pleasurable [was this conversation], than to have to sit there, sometimes in terribly long silences, trying to devise ‘Hitchcockian’ methods of extricating fictional characters from the corners into which you painted them the day before.’ –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

It was usually Lehman that launched the conversation into writing-mode, and the men would trade ideas for whatever script problems that they were facing on that particular day (with Hitchcock having final say). When Lehman made suggestions of his own, it created a different kind of suspense for the writer.

“…You begin to talk, and he watches you, and he listens, and you watch him carefully, and you continue, and finally you’ve said it all. And then [Hitchcock] does one of several things. His face lights up with enthusiasm. Good sign. Or his face remains unchanged. Question mark. Or he says absolutely nothing about what you have just told him, and talks about another aspect of the picture. Pocket veto. Or he looks at you with great sympathy, and says, ‘But Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.’” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Both men had rather robust egos. Lehman really didn’t like being subordinate to Alfred Hitchcock, and preferred to write things the way that he wanted to write them. However, when one writes with Hitchcock it is understood that they are there to write what he tells them to write.

“‘I found myself refusing to accept Hitch’s ideas (if I thought they were wrong),’ Lehman recalled later, ‘merely because those ideas were coming from a legendary figure.’ The writer had grown weary of Hitchcock overanalysing everything, and he simply wanted the go-ahead to finish. The silences between them grew longer, the disagreements awkward…

…Privately Hitchcock had decided that Lehman was ‘a very nervous and edgy sort of man’ who was deliberately giving him ‘a rather difficult time,’ as he complained in a letter to Michael Balcon in England. When he suffered a heart attack in September, Hitchcock went do far as to blame the episode (only half kiddingly, it seems) on the constant ‘nervous state’ induced by his arguments with Lehman.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Whether not the tense relationship between these two men actually had an impact on the final script is up for debate, but there it seems to have left its mark on the film’s infamous ending.

“…Again Lehman toyed from time to time with the idea of resigning, and was persuaded back, grumbling but still fascinated. He ended incredulous at all the agony which had gone into the creation of such a slight picture, and amazed that so little of it showed. Finally, his main difference of opinion with Hitchcock was over the ending, which Hitch eventually wrote himself and submitted to Lehman, listened to his objections (mainly that the medium is shown throughout to be a fake, so to suggest that maybe she has a touch of psychic power is disturbingly inconsistent), discussed his alternate solutions, and then went right ahead and used his own version.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Although, Hitchcock used the ending that he had written without Lehman, the writer’s issues were addressed in post-production.

“… [This] led to some redubbing in the New Year when the Hitchcock’s returned from their annual pilgrimage to St. Moritz. On a shot of Adamson’s back as he carries the drugged Blanche to captivity after she has tumbled to his true identity was dubbed a line referring to the diamond in the chandelier (not in the shooting script), which could just possibly explain away Blanche’s final revelation – maybe she was not completely unconscious at the time or heard the remark unawares. When Ernest Lehman saw the film he was unhappy with the line, and suggested something less contrived–sounding, while admitting that any line at this point was necessary contrivance. The line was re-dubbed using one of Lehman’s suggestions…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Of course, writing Alfred Hitchcock’s “53rd feature” was the easy part (regardless of what the director might say in publicity interviews). The seventies were a challenging decade for the director, and both he and Alma suffered quite a few health related scares. He was in the midst of several of these scares while preparing Family Plot (which was entitled Deceit during the film’s production).

“…Hitch had a succession of health problems that put him in and out of the hospital for most of the autumn –first, he had a heart pacer fitted, which he delights to show with some gruesome details of the surgical process involved. Then, as a result of a bad reaction to the antibiotics he was given, he got colitis, and once over that he had a kidney stone removed…

…By December 1974, when I saw him again, the production was moving toward its final stages of preparedness. The script was pretty well fixed, for the moment (the final production script bears evidence of some intensive final polishing around the end of March and the beginning of April 1975, but nearly all in matters of detail)…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Hitchcock’s health would have a large impact on how the film would be shot. The director had originally planned quite a bit of location shooting, but it became obvious to everyone that the production would have to be tied to the studio. Of course, there were a few noteworthy exceptions.

“…The image of Grace Cathedral remained for the Bishop’s kidnapping, and with it some other unobtrusively San Francisco locations for the houses of various characters. At one time Hitch even considered doing the cathedral sequence in the studio, on the principal that all he really needed was one column and the rest could be matted in. But he discovered that in the studio the sequence would cost $200,000, so he decided he might as well go on location, and while he was there himself shoot the other San Francisco exteriors, which had formerly been assigned to the second unit.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Special preparations were taken by the studio to ensure that Hitchcock could get around with relative ease. Thom Mount elaborated on some of the special measures that were taken to writer, Charlotte Chandler.

“…Mr. Hitchcock had a very hard time standing up for any lengthy period of time. Walking was not his strong suit by that time, so we took an old Cadillac convertible and a welding torch, and we cut the sides, and the back off of it, fitted a flat platform on the back of the Cadillac, and on that flat platform we put a chair for a cinematographer, as if it were a crane that was mounted on a hydraulic lift. Mr. Hitchcock would sit in the chair and move himself around in any direction and see in all directions. The Cadillac was moved all around the soundstage, even though they were interiors, just backing it into place, wherever it needed to be. And so Mr. Hitchcock could move around” –Thom Mount (as quoted by Charlotte Chandler in “It’s Only A Movie,” 2006)

"I never realized I would be working so hard at this age." –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

“I never realized I would be working so hard at this age.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

There were other issues to consider as well. Hitchcock took special care to go over his visual plans with his storyboard artist, Tom Wright. This was particularly true of the car “chase sequence,” because Hitchcock’s health issues would make it impossible to be present during some of the shooting of this particular sequence. It was necessary for the storyboards to be an exact replica of his vision, because the second unit would need them to follow Hitchcock’s design down to the last detail.

Even with these health issues as a handicap, the old master seemed sharp as a tack mentally. He even seemed maintain his equanimity while shooting the location footage at Grace Cathedral.

“The extras, as is the way with extras, want to act, to make the most of their few seconds [of] screen time with elaborate reactions, and dare to attempt discussion of motivation with the director… At one point, when the abduction of the Bishop is actually taking place, some extras at the back ask him to describe what is happening so that they will know how to react. ‘Can you see what’s happening?’ No. ‘Then there you are. You can’t see what’s happening, you just have a vague idea that something is. You don’t have to react beyond a slight show of curiosity.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Crowd scenes are always difficult, and to be able to direct a large number of people in a relatively short period of time takes more than just a small amount of mental stamina. This was always one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most accessible tools. Unfortunately, the production was not without a reasonable amount of stress, and there are certain problems that take more than mental prowess. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made.

“Shortly after the successful location shooting in San Francisco some unexpected troubles arose with the shooting, acknowledged in a brief press announcement dated 13 June which stated that the character portrayed by Roy Thinnes had ‘undergone a conceptual change calling for a new character concept’ to be played by William Devane… Stories vary as to what lay behind this change, which necessitated reshooting and put the film, up to then a few days ahead of schedule, rather behind. (It was originally scheduled to take fifty-eight days to shoot, and the budget envisaged was a modest three and a half million, of which Hitch wryly remarked, about $550,000 would go on fringe benefits of various kinds that never show on the screen.)” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

One of the stories as to the reason that Thinnes had been re-cast with Devane was published on June 18, 1975 in Variety (a source that isn’t always particularly accurate). According to Variety, “Alfred Hitchcock and Roy Thinnes disagreed on the interpretation of the young actor’s role in Deceit after a scene in San Francisco… Actor’s don’t tell Hitch; he tells them.” However, the Athens News Courier would quote Hitchcock giving a less dramatic reason for the actor’s replacement in an article published on June 1, 1976: “That came from miscasting on my part. He didn’t have a sinister quality.”

“…Given Hitch’s absolute and abiding horror of scenes and confrontations, it seems very unlikely that [a confrontation with Thinnes about the character] occurred, but rather that Hitch put into practice his often stated principal that if he found he was not getting what he wanted from an actor his natural way of dealing with the situation would be to pay the actor off and start again with someone else. A spectator did describe to me the nearest thing to a confrontation when Roy Thinnes cornered Hitch at his regular table at Chasens’ during one of his regular Thursday dinners to ask him in some distress, ‘why?’ Hitch, equally distressed, just kept saying, ‘but you were too nice for the role, too nice.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, Hitchcock was particularly fond of both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern. He allowed both actors a certain amount of freedom to interpret their characters, and his relationship with both of these actors was one of genuine affection based on mutual admiration and respect.

“I’ve made thirty films, and he’s the best director I’ve ever worked for. He’s also the most entertaining man, the best actor. He’s got style and personality, and he’s full of stories. Of course, people say he allows no freedom to actors. But there’s all the freedom in the world once you understand the ground rules. He explains what the shot is supposed to say and what you’re supposed to do. Then you give it! If you couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t be working for him in the first place. Nothing is left to chance except the actor’s improvisation. He’s concerned that the actor keep it fresh, alive, [and] new. He wants each shot to entertain him – then he knows the audience will be entertained.” – Bruce Dern (as quoted by Donald Spoto in “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

When the picture wrapped on the 18th of August, the production was only thirteen days over schedule. Luckily, the title was changed from Deceit to Family Plot at some point during the film’s creation. The latter title was suggested by someone in Universal’s publicity department after Hitchcock had expressed his dissatisfaction with the original title. After making a market inquiry into the effectiveness of Deceit as a possible title, Hitchcock’s instinct was proven accurate. It didn’t seem to be an effective title for this particular film.

“I felt the word ‘Deceit’ suggested a bedroom farce. It suggested – It was rather a mild word. It didn’t carry any meaning with it. Pictorially, when one began to think about the word, ‘Deceit,’ there you had the woman in bed, the husband entering the bedroom, and the lover secreted behind the curtain… and that to me epitomized the word ‘Deceit.’ It wasn’t good, I didn’t think.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock never really recovered from his falling out with Bernard Herrmann, and it was rather late in the post production process when John Williams was finally asked to provide a score for the film.

“Mr. Hitchcock had his office here at Universal Studios. And so he apparently needed a composer for this Family Plot, and the executive those years in charge of music was a gentleman called Harry Garfield. So, it was Harry Garfield who recommended me as a newcomer, just having done Jaws, a very successful film, to Mr. Hitchcock. And I went to see him at his office, and we had lunch and had a chat and I left not knowing if he would engage me to do this or not. Then I got a call from Mr. Garfield the next day. It said, Hitchcock, yes, he would like you to do the score.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

The composer found the experience of working with Alfred Hitchcock instructive, and is valuable as evidence against the insane claim that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have an ear for music. He was in fact very aware of how different kinds of music altered a scene’s tone. He was also very aware of the effect that the absence of music could have upon the audience.

“I could tell you one little anecdote, also, about a scene in the film where we didn’t have a disagreement about where the music should play but a discussion. There was a room where the criminal had been, and the camera pans to the window, which is open. And the curtains blow in the breeze, and this reveal of the camera tells us the criminal has escaped.

But the orchestra was playing to drive the energy to people to go to discover where the criminal is. Driving, driving, driving… through the point where the camera goes through the door. And I continued the music when the camera panned to the window, playing it more. And he said, “You know, if you stop the music when the camera pans to the window, “the silence will tell us that it’s empty — he’s gone — more emphatically, more powerfully than any musical phrase.” And, of course, just the absence of music at that point… It was a wonderful lesson, really, in where to arrange the parts of the music in any film, which we call “spotting,” incidentally. That is to say, the spots are where the music is.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”  Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”  -Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”
Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”
-Family Plot Press Conference (March 23rd, 1976)

When the film debuted on March 18, 1976 for a University of Sothern California preview audience, Hitchcock was quite happy with the student audience’s enthusiastic reaction. The director’s optimism cemented when Family Plot officially premièred opened at the benefit opening of ‘Filmex’ (Los Angeles International Film Festival) on March 21, 1976. The reaction here was also quite enthusiastic, and it looked like the director might have a hit on his hands.

Of course, an early review that was published in Variety on the December 31, 1975 had probably already spearheaded his optimum several months before the film was even released.

Family Plot is a dazzling achievement for Alfred Hitchcock masterfully controlling shifts from comedy to drama throughout a highly complex plot. Witty screenplay, transplanting Victor Canning’s British novel, The Rainbird Pattern, to a California setting, is a model of construction, and the cast is uniformly superb.

Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris are the couple who receive primary attention, a cabbie and a phony psychic trying to find the long-lost heir to the Rainbird fortune.

Dern is a more than slightly absurd figure, oddly appealing; Harris is sensational.

William Devane takes a high place in the roster of Hitchcockian rogues, while Karen Black, gives a deep resonance to her relationship with the mercurial Devane.” –Variety (December 31, 1975)

Vincent Canby also wrote an affectionate review for the New York Times, following the film’s release to the public.

“Not since To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry has Alfred Hitchcock been in such benign good humor as he is in Family Plot, the old master’s 56th feature since he began directing films in 1922.

Family Plot, which opened at theaters all over town yesterday, is a witty, relaxed lark. It’s a movie to raise your spirits even as it dabbles in phony ones, especially those called forth by Blanche (Barbara Harris), a sweet, pretty, totally fraudulent Los Angeles medium, who nearly wrecks her vocal cords when possessed by a control whose voice sounds like Sidney Greenstreet’s.

But Family Plot isn’t about anything as esoteric as spiritualism and its sometimes wayward votaries. It’s about good, old-fashioned greed, or, how to work very, very hard in order to make your fortune illegally. It’s one of the many invigorating ironies of Family Plot that its con people are so obsessed by their criminal pursuits they never realize the easier way would probably be the lawful one. Then, of course, there would be no plot, and a high regard for plot is one of the distinguishing joys of both Hitchcock and this new film…

…Blanche and Lumley, merged, make a single bird-brain, but one whom heaven protects and fortune smiles on. As performed by Miss Harris and Mr. Dern, they are two of the most appealing would-be rascals that Hitchcock had even given us. For that matter so are Adamson and Fran (she has no last name, which leaves her matrimonial state in Old World, gentlemanly doubt). Though Adamson is portrayed as being perfectly willing to murder, when cornered, he never succeeds, and Fran is the kind of kidnapper who prepares gourmet meals for her involuntary guests. The four are extremely good company, like Hitchcock himself when, in an expansive, genial, storytelling mood, even his digressions have digressions, but always to the point of some higher entertainment truth.

Hitchcock aficionados may well miss signs of the director’s often overanalyzed pessimism. Family Plot is certainly Hitchcock’s most cheerful film in a long time, but it’s hardly innocent. One of the things that figure prominently in the plot, though it happens long before the film starts, is the story of a young man who, finding his stepparents boring, pours gasoline all over the house and incinerates the offending pair. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it continues the master’s franchise on the macabre.” –Vincent Canby (New York Times, April 10, 1976)

Roger Ebert was also positive in his statements about the film, giving it three out of four stars.

“Alfred Hitchcock has always preferred visuals to dialog, yet Family Plot opens on a talkative note. A medium, the slightly spaced-out Madame Blanche, is holding a séance with an eccentric old lady. They’re in the old lady’s parlor, surrounded by antiques and heirlooms and an abundance of deep shadows, and the old lady is involved in this incredibly complicated tale about events of years ago.

It appears that her late sister had an illegitimate child and, times being what they were, the child was given up for adoption. Then the sister died, and the child was lost track of, and now the old lady is afraid of dying and wants to make amends by willing her vast fortune to the child. Madame Blanche’s assignment: Find the missing nephew. He’d be almost 40 now.

If this were to be a routine story, the medium no doubt would recruit someone to play the missing nephew, and they’d share the vast fortune. But, no, this is a Hitchcock, so that would be far too simple. Madame Blanche does the unexpected thing: She sets out to find the nephew. And, as wonderfully played by Barbara Harris, she has such a sweet and simple faith in the possibility of everything that we almost think she’s right. She enlists the aid of her rather slow-witted boyfriend (Bruce Dern), a cabdriver and sometime actor. He’ll do the detective work, she’ll keep the old lady happy and they’ll share a $10,000 reward.

Now comes a nice touch. As Blanche and her boyfriend drive home in a cab, they almost run down a woman. They miss and drive on, but the camera follows the woman. She is, inevitably, the wife of none other than the missing nephew. And the two of them are involved in a series of kidnappings with precious jewels as the ransom.

The way Hitchcock cuts, just like that, from one pair to the other — cheerfully flaunting the coincidence – reminds me a little of Luis Bunuel’s recent The Phantom of Liberty. It’s as if both directors, now in their 70s and in total command of their styles, have decided to dispense with explanations from time to time: Why waste time making things tiresomely plausible when you can simply present them as accomplished?

Family Plot opens, as I’ve suggested, with a rather large amount of talking, but it’s necessary to lay out the elements of the story. Hitchcock has a deviously complicated tale to tell, and he’s going to tell it with labyrinthine detail, and he’s not going to cheat — so he wants to be sure we’re following him. It wouldn’t be playing fair with his meticulously constructed plot to describe very much of what happens, but there’s a real delight in watching him draw his two sets of characters closer and closer, until they meet in a conclusion that’s typical Hitchcock: simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.

But I can, I suppose, admire a scene or two. There’s a moment in a graveyard, for example, when a gravedigger appears almost from out of Hamlet to regard a suspicious tombstone with the investigating cabdriver. Another moment in the same cemetery, as the cabdriver and a newly made widow stalk each other on grass paths, with Hitchcock shooting from above to make them seem captives of a maze. And a scene in a cathedral that’s Hitchcock at his best: A bishop is kidnapped, and no one moves to interfere because… well, this is a church, after all.

As his kidnappers and jewel thieves, Hitchcock casts Karen Black and William Devane. She does a good job in a role that doesn’t give her much to do, but Devane, whom I hadn’t seen before, is inspired as the criminal mastermind and missing nephew. He has a kind of quiet, pleasant, sinister charm; he’s oily and smooth and ready to pounce. And his aura of evil contrasts nicely with Miss Harris and Dern, who have no idea what sorts of trouble they’re in.

Family Plot is, incredibly, Hitchcock’s 53rd film in a career that reaches back almost 50 years. And it’s a delight for two contradictory reasons: because it’s pure Hitchcock, with its meticulous construction and attention to detail, and because it’s something new for Hitchcock — a macabre comedy, essentially. He doesn’t go for shock here, or for violent effects, but for the gradual tightening of a narrative noose.

Everything’s laid out for us and made clear, we understand the situation we can see where events are leading… and then, in the last 30 minutes, he springs one concealed trap after another, allowing his story to fold in upon itself, to twist and turn, and scare and amuse us with its clockwork irony.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times, April 12, 1976)

Other reviews, such as the one published in the Independent Film Journal were also enthusiastic.

“For his 53rd film, Alfred Hitchcock has toned down the shock value and accentuated the humor in a deliciously complex comedy-suspense drama that will have audiences happily perched in the palm of its hand nearly every step of the way. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern sparkle as two innocent tricksters whose search for a missing heir suddenly parallels the path of a pair of professional kidnappers. Great fun and bound to be a great hit.

Don’t be too surprised if this year’s Easter Bunny is portlier than usual, complete with multiple chins, a proudly out-jutting belly and only a few wisps of grey hair remaining on his scalp. Chances are he’s shown up in the trademarked form of Alfred Hitchcock, beckoning audiences to Family Plot, a beautifully constructed, literately witty and thoroughly involving comedy suspense-drama crafted with the sure hands of a an impudent genius. Moving even further away from the shuddery sensibilities of his best-known films, Hitchcock seems to have approached his 53rd feature in a mellow and benign mood, spinning his complex web of suspense with a far greater accent on rich humor than on shock value, as if he didn’t want his audiences to feel even vaguely threatened or uncomfortable en route to their final catharsis. Stated simply, Family Plot promises those audiences one hell of a good time and should prove a rousing success at the box-office. The discomforting sense of menace may be missing, but in most respects Family Plot is still quintessential Hitchcock, a complex plot that begins as a tantalizing mystery, allows itself to be solved for the viewer relatively early on, and then shifts to pure suspense as its convoluted threads inexorably weave themselves together.

Beautifully scripted by Ernest Lehman from Victor Canning’s novel, The Rainbird Pattern, the film again taps that steady thematic vein that continually resurfaces in Hitchcock’s work: what happens when relatively innocent bystanders find themselves unwittingly—and dangerously—enmeshed in someone else’s criminal goings-on. In this case, the action cuts back and forth between two sets of protagonists, one of them greedy but basically innocent, the other coldly criminal, with both combinations destined to clash trajectories. The heroes of the piece, superbly played by Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris, are a beguiling pair of lower-echelon con artists contriving to track down the missing heir to a dowager’s fortune and hoping to earn a $10,000 finder’s fee for their trouble…

…More often than not, the intricate plot turns and quirks of character are far wittier and deliciously entertaining than they are tension-provoking, a fact that may momentarily disappoint serious Hitchophiles expecting artfully visualized set pieces like the shower stabbing in Psycho or the potato truck scene in Frenzy. But the story is definitely the thing, and even if a key scene in which Dern and Harris are pursued down the highway by a murderous car doesn’t sustain itself long enough to muster any great emotional payoff, there are more than enough ingenious twists and a firm enough overlay of suspense to keep viewers raptly entertained from beginning to end.

Brightening things considerably, and providing two of the most engaging characters ever to fill Hitchcock’s viewfinder, are Dern and Harris as a pair of good-hearted bumblers whose liveliness and emotional range firmly counters the kind of cool, cipher-like performances the director is noted for wanting from his actors. As their destined nemesis Devane checks in effectively as another suave but despicable Hitchcock villain, while Black, as his suddenly rebellious partner, conforms more closely to the cipher quality mentioned above. Strong support comes from Ed Lauter as Devane’s psychotically traditional henchman.

Technical credits, barring some of those curiously sloppy process shots Hitchcock seems to relish so much, are excellent, highlighted by a deliciously taunting score by John Williams. Piece by piece and in overall effect, Family Plot is as solid an entertainment as any audience—at any level—could ever hope for.” -S.K. (The Independent Film Journal, April 14, 1976)

Even Penelope Gilliatt’s review for The New Yorker was generous in its kindness towards Family Plot.

“With a kick on a cemetery headstone that has no body below (‘Fake! Fake!’ shouts the kicker), and a gentle, lethal plopping of brake fluid, the sound track of Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot firmly plants us in a world in which the hallowed is a hoax and the mechanically sophisticated is dangerous to treat as a plaything. Hitchcock has never made a strategically wittier film, or a fonder; and this in his seventy-seventh year.

The beginning reminds us that the Master has always wanted to direct, of all things, J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose; and, though he once cheerfully informed me that he has it in his studio agreement that he is not allowed to film the play, the wily old jackdaw has managed to smuggle a whit of Barrie’s fantasy into his new comedy-mystery. Mary Rose hears voices calling her from another world; at the beginning of Family Plot, when Barbara Harris, as a ravishingly pretty and constantly famished con-woman spiritualist named Blanche, is conducting a séance with a loaded old biddy named Miss Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), Blanche speaks in the voices of a woman and a man from the Great Beyond. The voices confirm Miss Rainbird’s guilt about having long ago covered up the illegitimate birth of an heir to the Rainbird fortune. Then Blanche, exhausted by her bogus insights, returns from the Other Side and gratefully accepts a drink. ‘A double shot of anything.’

Blanche works hard to make her wide-eyed living out of the dead. The offer of a reward of ten thousand dollars if she can find the missing heir is an amazing windfall. She generally manages frugally. Her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) drives a taxi. They exist on hamburger-munching and sex, both of which are perpetually being interrupted by twists in the Rainbird-heir mystery and by shift-work for the taxi company. The Bruce Dern character, called Lumley, puts up with deprivation better than his girl, whose temperament endearingly refutes generalities about women being too finely bred to have appetites. Blanche is a girl of simple longings whom fate keeps calorically and erotically ravenous.

Hitchcock has always thrived on making stories about couples. In Family Plot — written by Ernest Lehman, from an English novel by Victor Canning which has been transplanted to California — we see how his attitude toward casting has changed. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern occupy the places that would once have been held by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, or Kim Novak and James Stewart. The part of the glossy blonde (Karen Black) is now villainous, and the glossy blondness is a matter of a wig. Called Fran, she is in murderous collusion with a smooth diamond thief named Adamson (William Devane). Another couple. The two pairs are piercingly different. Blanche and Lumley adore each other, though they often seem about to throw lamps at each other; Fran and Adamson are partners in crime who cherish little love for each other and talk to each other with a formality that is eerily violent. There being no chivalry among thieves, Adamson unblinkingly sends Fran on dangerous missions by herself, for which she wears six-inch heels, black clothes, and the blond wig: at one’s first glimpse of her in this disguise she looks as if she might well be a man in drag. The music-hall sight is funnily linked to the way Blanche’s voice suddenly hits an air pocket and comes out as a baritone’s at the opening séance…

…[Hitchcock] often has a wryly amused view of women’s scares. I remember that he was once showing me his kitchen in Bel Air. Everything was spick-and-span. Not a cornflake visible. A desert for cockroaches. He opened a door, and icy air steamed out. The freezer locker: a whole room. I saw hams and sides of beef hanging from hooks like rich women’s fur coats in summer storage. Hitchcock courteously bowed me in first. I hesitated and looked back, imagining the door clanging shut behind me. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew that he knew. A Hitchcock scene was in our imaginations, and an equally Hitchcock flash of irrational fear had come to pass.

Each of his films has been full of moments of red-herring disquiet, but he has never laid such a bland set of ambushes as in Family Plot. The Master makes unsettling use of an oaken-looking woman in a jeweller’s shop, whom Blanche cheerfully asks if her sign is Leo; of a brick wall that comes open and then closes hermetically, causing steep claustrophobia; of a remote-control garage-door gadget; of a fragment of bishop’s red robe shut in the bottom of a car door in a garage, making one think of the gaudy socks of the unlosable corpse in The Trouble with Harry (1955); of an overhead shot of a weeping woman hurrying through a maze of paths in a cemetery, pursued by Bruce Dern; of a woman physician, a disgruntled old man in shirtsleeves, and identical-twin mechanics, who are successive false trails in Blanche’s chase; of a genteel chiming doorbell on the front door of the thieves’ house. Hitchcock’s ominous mechanical devices and his dark clues leading nowhere build up in us a farcical discomfiture. We are like oversensitive princesses troubled by peas under mattresses.

But Family Plot does not rest on the fostering of anxiety. Hitchcock allows himself a camaraderie with the audience which makes this film one of the saltiest and most endearing he has ever directed. It is typical of the picture that he should have the sagacity and technique to bring the terrifying car incident to such an un-troubling close. Only a very practiced poet of suspense could slacken the fear without seeming to cheat, and end the sequence without using calamity. With this picture, he shows us that he understands the secret of the arrow that leaves no wound and of the joke that leaves no scar. Sometimes in his career, Hitchcock has seemed to manipulate the audience; in this, his fifty-third film, he is our accomplice, turning his sense of play to our benefit. There is something particularly true-pitched in his use of the talent of Barbara Harris. She has never before seemed so fully used. The film finishes on her, as it begins. She goes mistily upstairs in pursuit of the enormous diamond that the villains have stolen. Lumley watches her. She seems to be in a trance. Maybe she has got supernatural powers, after all. She brings off a clairvoyant’s coup, though we know more than her lover, does. He is purely delighted by her. A Hitchcock film has seldom had a more pacific ending. –Penelope Gilliatt (The New Yorker, April 19, 1976)

Critics in Alfred Hitchcock’s native home seemed to also enjoy the film. One such example would be this rave review from The Times:

“Seventy-seven last Friday, Alfred Hitchcock has yielded to age none of his mastery as storyteller. He still possesses the supreme gift of suspense, in the sense of sustaining, at every moment, curiosity about what comes next. Because it’s played for light comedy going on farce, Family Plot risks being pigeon-holed as a frolic, a minor work in the old master’s canon. Time, I guess, may well accord it a central place. It has the geometric ingenuity of the later American work, along with the delight in quirky character that marked Hitchcock’s British period.

Derived from a novel by Victor Canning and scripted by Ernest Lehman, it maneuvers its plot into a symmetrical situation of two couples who are at once pursuing and pursued by each other. Barbara Harris (rather like a younger and funnier Shelley Winters) is a fake medium who with her accomplice (Bruce Dern), an out-of-work actor doing a little taxi-work, is after the reward for finding a long-lost heir. The heir (William Devane) has gone from bad to worse: having (as it emerges) incinerated his foster-parents, he is now leading a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, with his accomplice (Karen Black), and a kidnapper who trades his victims for desirable items of stock for his smart jewelry store. Naturally he mistrusts the intentions of the couple whom he discovers to be tailing him.

This plot is speedily established, with, elegant artifice. Driving away from the seance which has put them on the track of their quarry, Harris and Dern almost run down a sinister figure clad (by the veteran Hollywood designer and loyal Hitchcock collaborator Edith Head) all in black. The figure — Karen Black in a blonde wig — hurries on to the pick-up and then back to her accomplice, a villainous young man with a menacing glint in his teeth. The whole stage is set.

There are Hitchcock set-pieces like the Bishop kidnapped while officiating at a Mass or a chase at a funeral, along the maze-like paths of a graveyard, shot from above; jokey moments of fright like the Bishop’s red cassock leaking like blood from a car trunk; a very familiar Hitchcock nightmare when the nice couple are stranded on a bleak and lonely road, and the killer’s car draws slowly into view around the corner; clues delightedly planted like messages in a treasure hunt.

Yet what is most characteristic and charming in the film is a show-off relaxation, an easy demonstration of how it all should be done. Hitchcock this time builds a thriller without ever showing a killing (the only violent death is an accident, out of sight of the spectator); he makes the relationship of the two couples vibrantly, sexy without so much as showing a bed or a naked elbow. He gives a merry coup de grace to the convention of the car chase by reducing it to slapstick, with Harris clinging inconveniently around Dern’s neck as he struggles to control a brake-less car careering downhill, and finishing up with her foot in his face. It’s all a very jolly affair.” –The Times (August 20, 1976)

Admittedly, praise wasn’t universal. There were a few negative reviews. However, they seemed to be buried in the overwhelming approval of the majority… Well, the critical majority. Audiences seem to have been less enthusiastic.

Hitchcock had always taken pride in his box-office numbers, yet Family Plot was his least successful picture since The Trouble with Harry, another bent comedy to which the fifty-third Hitchcock bore a fleeting resemblance. Its number twenty-six box office ranking was an embarrassment, and to go out on top – with an audience winner – was one reason behind his seeming iron resolve to make yet one more film.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Actually, the director’s resolve to make another film had less to do with the box-office reception of Family Plot, and more to do with his nature. Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker. He was happiest when working on a new project. The next project would have been called, The Short Night. Unfortunately, Alfred Hitchcock’s debilitating health forced him to abandon his work on this new venture.

...and we are left with a wink.  The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

…and we are left with a wink.
The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

So in the end, we are left with the wink that so infuriated Ernest Lehman. It doesn’t seem at all inappropriate that Alfred Hitchcock’s swansong should have such a conclusion. After all, Hitchcock had been winking at his audiences for fifty years.

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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.

 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:

1.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal should be incredibly embarrassed with this ridiculously awful 1080P AVC encoded transfer. This goes beyond ineptitude. It shows an obvious disrespect for the film, and for the consumer. Family Plot has never looked particularly wonderful on home video, but one always hopes that a studio will improve the quality of each subsequent release. Most of these issues are not inherent in the source print either. There might be a slight improvement in detail from the previous DVD releases, but it is nowhere near what one expects from a Blu-ray transfer. Texture has been scrubbed from the image by an excessive use of digital noise reduction, and there are many occasions when haloing is a problem. Darker scenes have been crushed, while colors and contrast are uneven. There is always an incredibly noisy layer of grain. Grain can be a very beautiful thing, and is part of the film aesthetic. However, this transfer seems to be exhibiting something that is completely unnatural for film grain. (I am certain that it is a transfer issue.) Finally, there is a bit of film damage that could have been easily fixed if Universal actually put forth a minimal amount of effort to bring this film to high definition. This is Universal’s worst transfer of an Alfred Hitchcock film. The only good news is that the resolution is superior to their DVD editions of the film.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It might not be nearly enough of a consolation to say that the sound transfer doesn’t suffer the same apathetic treatment by Universal. Their mono DTS-HD mix is perfectly acceptable, and exhibits clear dialogue, balanced effects, and a full score by John Williams. This is as good as anyone might expect from a mono mix.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

One wonders why the excellent press conference for Family Plot wasn’t included in the supplements. This ninety minute Q & A would have made up for some of the discs less successful attributes. However, the excellent supplements that were available on previous DVD releases of the film can be found here as well.

Plotting Family Plot (2001) – (SD) – (00:48:22)

Laurent Bouzereau’s “Plotting Family Plot” isn’t the best of his Hitchcock related documentaries, but it isn’t the worst either. It is superior to the fluff that is produced for most recent home video releases, and does manage to give viewers an authentic glimpse into the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s final film. The program even utilizes actual ‘behind the scenes’ footage from the film’s production to illustrate the various interviews with the film’s cast and crew. Participants include Patricia Hitchcock, Howard G. Kazanjian, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black, Henry Bumstead, John Williams, and Hilton A. Green. It is essential viewing for fans.

Theatrical Trailers – (SD) – (00:03:18)

There are two theatrical trailers included, and both feature Alfred Hitchcock. The second of the two is probably the best, but it is nice to see both of them included on the disc (even if they are cropped to 4:3 ratio).

Storyboards: The Chase Scene – (SD)

This is basically a slide show of storyboards from the pre-visualization of the “chase sequence.” It is always nice to see storyboards included, but it would be preferable to see them here in high definition.

Production Photographs – (SD)

A slide show of production photographs are also included, and they round off the disc nicely.

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Final Words:

Family Plot is a pleasant farewell from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. It isn’t one of his best efforts, but it is difficult not to have a great time. The disc itself is another issue entirely. Universal needs to put more effort into some of their Blu-ray releases. This might be an upgrade from the DVD editions of the film, but the quality simply isn’t what one expects from a Blu-ray.

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Review by: Devon Powell

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.

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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.

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.”]

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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.

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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.

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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: 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).

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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: Torn Curtain

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Release Date: October 1, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 128 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Benny,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

The Masterpiece Collection

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

collection page

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

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

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photographs – (SD) –

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

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Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Materials

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

Variety Review (December 31, 1965)

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

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

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks – 1999)

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