Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

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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)

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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)

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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)

 

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Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho & The Birds

PSYCHO - POPART

Distributor: Universal

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

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.

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“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.

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2

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.

Screenshot 5

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.”]

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

 Screenshot 3

Sound Quality:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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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).

Menu 1

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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)

Blu-ray Review: Saboteur

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 Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 07, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 109 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot: Robert Cummings as Barry Kane

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Collection Page

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

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

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

Screenshot: Otto Kruger

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Screenshot: Priscilla Lane

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Screenshot

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

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

Storyboards – (SD) – (4 min)

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

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

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

Production Photographs – (SD) – (8 min)

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

Screenshot

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Materials:

 Review (Variety, April 29, 1942)

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

 Review (The Times, May, 28 1942)

Alfred Hitchcock Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

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

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:59:29

Video: 1080P AVC (MPEG-4)

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

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.37 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. This disc also comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

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

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

THE GENESIS

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

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

WRITING WITH EVAN HUNTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRITCHETT & ‘THE SAND DUNES’

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

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

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

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

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

THE DELETED SCENE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMPROVISATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FAWCETT FARM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TIDES RESTAURANT

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

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

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

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

THE SOUNDTRACK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ENDING

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

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

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

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

 Obviously, none of this is in the film.

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL EFFECTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECEPTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conception of the film, then, is compelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Andrew Sarris also admired the film upon its release.

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

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

LEGACY

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

collection page

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

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork that improves on the artwork used for the various DVD releases of the film.

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

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

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics – (HD) – (9:13) –

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (5:11) –

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

Deleted Scene – (SD) – (4:20) –

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

Original Ending – (SD) – (3:40) –

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

Storyboards – (SD) – (24:21) –

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

Production Photographs – (SD) –

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

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Final Words:

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

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Source Materials:

Article (The Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

Daphne du Maurier (The Birds)

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

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

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

Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Interview (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Barry Forshaw (Crime Time)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Review (Variety, December 31, 1962)

Review (Time, Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach Review (Film Quarterly, 1963)

Review (The Times, August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut Review (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1963)

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

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

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

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

Review By: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Vertigo

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region Free

Length: 2:08:27

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio:

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

DTS English Mono

Alternate Audio:

DTS French Mono

DTS Spanish Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.90 Mbps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor claims that this alteration was actually his idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unused Portrait of Carlotta based on  Vera Miles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vertigo 6 Stairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Ratio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There! No more hints! Coming or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newsweek’s David Ansen was equally impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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" page

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

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

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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:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

Feature Length Commentary by William Friedkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vertigo Archives – (SD)

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

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Final Words:

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

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Source Materials:

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

Review (The Times, April 11, 1958)

Review (Variety, May 14, 1958)

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

Review (Time, June 16, 1958)

Variety (July 30, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Robin Wood (Hitchcock’s Films, 1965)

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

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Kim Novak (Interview with Henry Sheean, 1996)

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Barr (Vertigo: BFI Film Classics)

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

Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)

Kim Novak (Save Hitchcock, August 31, 2012)

Kim Novak (Washington Post)

Kim Novak (Daily Mail, September, 2013)

Kim Novak (Orlando Sentinel, September 4, 2013)

Kim Novak (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014)

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Rear Window

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region Free

Length: 1:52:32

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

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

Alternate Audio: DTS French Mono, DTS Spanish Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.66:1

Bitrate: 31.99 Mbps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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

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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:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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

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

Rear Window Ethics – (SD) – (55:10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masters of Cinema – (SD) – (33:39)

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

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

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

Theatrical Trailer – (HD) –

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

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

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

Production Photographs – (SD) –

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

Final Words:

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

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Cornell Woolrich (It Had To Be Murder)

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

Review by François Truffaut (1954)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation, Channel 28, 1969)

Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

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

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

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

Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)