Blu-ray: ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection’ on Universal

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) – The box set of 15 Alfred Hitchcock pictures made between 1942 and 1976 (featuring films from Paramount, Warner Bros, and MGM as well as Universal Studios) expands on the 2012 Blu-ray box set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection with two bonus DVDs highlighting Hitchcock’s work on the small screen.

Universal Home Video

They’re not all masterpieces but they are all from the Master of Suspense so they all have their merits, and the discs are packed with supplements. Each disc includes a gallery of stills, a trailer, and a featurette written, produced and directed by specialist Laurent Bouzereau for the original DVD special edition releases of the films. Each runs between 30 and 45 minutes. Bouzereau constructs detailed stories of the creation and production of the films with the help of surviving artists and actors, and adds just a little interpretive insight. The later films, not surprisingly, feature more first person remembrances and run a little longer. Some discs include more supplements. Note that these are the exact same Blu-ray masters from the 2012 set, which means that the same issues are present in the five problematic discs. More on those later. Here’s the line-up, with notes on some select supplements.

Saboteur (1942) – Robert Cummings is Hitch’s classic wrong man on the run in this rollercoaster romantic thriller, a coast-to-coast chase to find the wartime saboteur who has framed our hero. Climaxes with the memorable scramble over the Statue of Liberty, but the circus wagon scene and the charity ball full of spies are great scenes in their own right. Think of this as one of his “slices of cake.”

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) – Hitch’s own favorite film stars Joseph Cotten in perhaps his most modulated performance as the charming “Merry Widow Killer,” and Theresa Wright as his adoring niece and namesake, a kind of innocent doppelganger sullied by her discovery of his secret. Thornton Wilder scripted this deft, subtle thriller. “He loved bringing the menace into a small town,” says daughter Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell in the documentary featurette.

Rope (1948) – Hitch’s bold long take experiment looks better every year, a grim psychodrama turned cinematic stagecraft with a meticulously choreographed camera. The documentary comments of screenwriter Arthur Laurents, an articulate and thoughtful witness who thinks Hitch missed an opportunity by showing the murder at the opening instead of leaving ambiguous, defines the key to Hitch. The fear of being caught and the guilt of one’s actions are far more affecting than distracting mysteries and suspense for the sake of suspense. Don’t forget to watch the trailer with the famous “missing scene.”

Rear Window (1954) – There are few true innocents in Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers and Hitch perversely chose Jimmy Stewart—forever remembered as Capra’s idealistic everyman despite a rich and varied career—to be his most morally gray figure. Here he’s merely the eternal adult adolescent playing at romance with elegant Grace Kelly, who Hitch transforms into an earthy angel of sex and glamour. This is a brilliant film about voyeurism, shot in a beautifully designed courtyard set through a window the same shape as a movie screen, and a masterpiece of suspense experienced from the wheelchair of Hitch’s most physically helpless hero. But it’s really—like so many Hitchcock films—about the joy and fear of sex and the perceived emasculating threat of commitment. The story plays out, in so many variations, in every window of the courtyard. The hour long featurette “Rear Window Ethics” reveals that the incredible ambient sound, from courtyard dialogue to the music, was all recorded live on the set, and details the painstaking restoration effort. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes has little to add in his separate 13 minute interview.

The Trouble With Harry (1955) is that he won’t stay put! The cheeky, lighthearted gallows humor of this autumnal comedy didn’t find a movie audience on release but can be felt in many episodes of his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Present. Shirley MacLaine is delightful in her perky film debut but the film is stolen by the deftly underplayed comedy and sly romantic courtship between Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick. Those New England colors look great. The documentary also features a nice segment on the gorgeous music of Bernard Herrmann in his first Hitchcock collaboration.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – Hitchcock preferred this Americans abroad remake to his early British hit, where the undercurrent of family melodrama adds a truly strange edge to the intrigue. James Stewart (in his third Hitch project) is a jocular doctor whose complacency is upended after hearing a spy’s dying words, and enemy agents kidnap his son to ensure his silence. Where the original is tight, energetic, and full of offbeat humor, this is big and a bit sluggish, and far more ambivalent about “happily ever after.” And yes, Doris Day does indeed sing “Que Sera Sera,” which Hitch turns into a dramatic element in his own sly way.

Vertigo (1958) is, simply put, one of the greatest films ever made. The 2012 Sight and Sound poll merely made it official. James Stewart is helpless, hopeless, and guilty as sin as he tries to transform a shopgirl (Kim Novak) into his lost love and becomes lost in his own fantasy. It was restored in 1996, rebuilt from the original elements: the negative cleaned up, the sound digitally remastered and remixed from the original master recordings, and prints struck from a fresh internegative, and the soundtrack recreated in stereo from original dialogue tracks, a rediscovered stereo recording of the score, and newly recorded sound effects, which were mixed far too prominently in the soundtrack and created a strange clash of eras: the warm, resonant analog voice and music tracks versus the sharp, colder digital ambient sound. Those issues are resolved in this remastered edition, which remixes the new surround soundtrack with more care and also includes the original mono mix, and applies digital tools unavailable in 1996 to further correct problems in the original elements. The supplements include an extensive stills gallery featuring drawings and storyboards prepared for the original production as well as production photographs, there is a documentary on both the making of the film and on the painstaking restoration process (which took over a year), and commentary by filmmaker William Friedkin.

The Birds (1963) – When Hollywood made stories of nature gone mad it was always atomic insects and mutated critters. Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of feathered friends turning on humanity is all the more terrifying because he offers no explanation. It’s an unusual and unnerving film, purposely awkward, oddly alienating, and genuinely disturbing. A solid 70-minute documentary covers the ambitious and impressive special effects and unused ideas illuminated with storyboards, script excerpts and stills, and features a wealth of background material (including Tippi Hedren’s screen test) and interviews with stars and creative collaborators. There’s another featurette that was created for the 2012 release, but the 14-minute “The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie” is an undercooked piece with a bunch of filmmakers and critics praising the film and clips of other Universal monster films illustrating their points about the legacy of the “monster” in American movies. This one is not by Bouzreau and it shows.

Marnie (1964) – Some hold this chilly vision of psychosis and domination as Hitchcock’s most perverse chapter in his battle of the sexes next to Vertigo, while others find its manipulations and cinematic maneuvering ludicrous. While never really emotionally involving—it’s simply too removed and artificial—it’s thrilling to watch Hitch’s cinematic experimentation, and his casting of smoldering, smirking Sean Connery as a blackmailing lover is inspired. The accompanying documentary “The Trouble with Marnie” brilliantly illuminates Hitchcock’s contributions by interviewing the initial two screenwriters to tackle the script (both are free with their criticisms of Hitch’s unconventional approach) as well Jay Presson Allen, who reworked it for Hitch.

Torn Curtain (1966) – A chilly look at cold war espionage, with a cool Paul Newman who suddenly defects to East Germany and a torn Julie Andrews who dutifully follows, unable to understand his seeming change of heart. Classic Hollywood Hitch doesn’t seem to know what to do with these modern stars or this humorless (and rather long) script, but rouses for the classic scene where the amateur Newman discovers just how hard it is to kill someone. The documentary discards the interview format for a narrated essay accompanied by film clips and stills. Also features 15 minutes of scenes rescored with Bernard Herrmann’s original music, which was replaced with a score by John Addison before the film was released.

Topaz (1969) – “Sometimes I think it’s ungrateful of us to criticize Hitchcock,” confesses Leonard Maltin, who stars in the excellent documentary supplement. It’s a nice way of saying that this isn’t one of Hitch’s best but we don’t want to admit it. Maltin takes stock of Hitch’s career, making some sharp observations about his career arc in the changing face of cinema and his response to it: a sober, “realistic” modern international thriller saddled with Hitch’s reliance on artificial studio sets and old fashioned process shots. The disc features the restored 143 minute director’s cut, along with two alternate endings and storyboards to “The Mendozas” scene.

Frenzy (1972) – The master’s return to form, return to England, and modern make-over all in one, the dark story of a vicious serial rapist and murderer and the wrong man accused of the crimes. Both brutal and blackly humorous, Hitch creates one of his squirmiest scenes ever as his killer breaks the rigor mortis stiffened fingers of a dead victim to retrieve a piece of evidence clutched in her hand, but the showpiece is a simple, elegant back track from a murder we know is about to be committed. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and three of the stars appear for this documentary, one of the best of the set.

Family Plot (1976) – Hitch’s last film is an easy, breezy thriller, not as deft as earlier work but brimming with winning performances from Barbara Harris as a kooky con artist spiritualist, Bruce Dern as her chauffeur boyfriend, and silky William Devane as a ruthless kidnapper. Scripted by Ernest Lehman, it proved a nice way for Hitch to leave the cinema, a lighthearted comic thriller with dark echoes and, once again, a romantic ambivalence tested by danger. The documentary is a bit overlong, but who wouldn’t want to listen to Bruce Dern, Karen Black, and William Devane tell stories about Hitch, even rather minor ones? Also features storyboards for “The Chase Scene.”

Universal Home Video

New to this box set are two bonus DVDs featuring episodes of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV shows. The Best of Alfred Hitchcock Presents features seven episodes of the half-hour series Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Hitchcock himself (of the seventeen he directed in all), one from each season of the show. These 26 minute miniatures are perfect companions to his film: small scale takes on similar themes with a few gut-dropping twist endings and some tasty mordant humor. This selection features the historic, brilliant first episode “Revenge,” with Ralph Meeker as the vengeful husband of physically molested and psychologically shattered wife Vera Miles, the delicious and sardonic “Lamb to the Slaughter” with Barbara Bel Geddes from season three, and the tension filled “Bang! You’re Dead,” featuring Bill Mumy as a backyard cowboy unknowingly brandishing a real, loaded gun in his neighborhood games from the seventh and final season of the show. Also included are “Mr. Blanchard’s Revenge” (season two), “Poison” (season four), “Arthur” (season five), and “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” (season six). All of these have been available on some form or another on DVD, but never together in a single set, let alone a single disc.

The final disc, The Best of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, features three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour never before released on home video in the U.S., including the only episode of the series directed by Hitchcock: “I Saw the Whole Thing” starring John Forsythe. It’s another episode that takes up the wrong man theme and the idea of subjectivity, and in some ways it plays as a companion piece to The Wrong Man (which is not in this set) as a courtroom drama.

Hitchcock of course hosts every episode of both shows.

The discs are tucked in paperboard sleeves in a big bookleaf volume in a sturdy slipsleeve and the set features an accompanying 58-page booklet with art, stills, and notes on the films.

As for the mastering issues that plagued the 2012 set and are carried over with this set: the titles on Frenzy are not from the original print but are digital recreations; there is a edge of digital video noise reduction on The Man Who Knew Too Much and Frenzy (noticeable but not terribly distracting); there is an annoying digital haze across most of Marnie (which is frustrating); and the poor image quality of Family Plot suggests an inferior master used for the transfer. I wish those issues had been addressed before this new edition.

Some of these issues were a matter of rushing the set out without the best materials available and some were simply errors in the mastering process, but most of these discs are still an improvement over the previous DVD releases, and the rest of the films are very good to superb. But one issue that isn’t so much a mistake as a technological conflict is the odd disjunction caused by high-definition digital scans of original negatives or second-generation copies. They deliver a sharpness and clarity that did not exist in film prints of the era. That seems like an advantage, but it also enhances the issues of process photography, draws attention to phony backdrops and rear-projection, exaggerates contrasts between soft-focus close-ups and the sharpness of conventional photography, and has a habit of making the seams of special effects more obvious. As technology improves, these issues become more apparent, and with the amount of rear-projection shots in Hitch’s films, the artifice is much closer to the surface. There is an art to a making a high-definition digital master of analog elements and the technicians working on these masters didn’t always find the balance that would preserve a consistency in image quality.

Given that, you’re still not going to find a better home video edition of these titles, and if you have not purchased this set yet, or are looking for a gift for a growing Hitchcock fan, this is a superb collection. The addition of the two discs of Hitch on TV just adds icing to cake.

Discs provided by Universal for review purposes.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection [Blu-ray]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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