Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection might just be the best bang for the buck you’re going to find this holiday season. If I hadn’t gone to public schools, I might be able to tell you what $210 divided by 15 films works out to per film, but I know it’s not a lot. And they’re on Blu-ray and there’s a ton of extras and the high-def transfers are absolutely stunning.
Three of the films are in luscious black and white; “Saboteur” (1942), “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) and of course 1961’s “Psycho.” The remaining twelve are all in color: “Rope” (1948), “Rear Window” (1954), “The Trouble With Harry” (1955), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), “Vertigo” (1958), “North by Northwest” (1959), “The Birds” (1963), “Marnie” ( 1964), “Torn Curtain” (1966), “Topaz (1969), “Frenzy (1972), and “Family Plot” (1976).
What’s wonderful about Hitchcock is that his color films are even more pleasing to the senses than what he filmed in black and white (and all but a few of his color films are in this set). This was a director who believed completely in the suspension of disbelief and the sensation of pure cinema. Until he bent to the times and went for a more realistic look with his three final films, Hitchcock embraced vivid colors and the kind of artificiality known as expressionism. Once color was available to him, except for stylistic choices like “Psycho” and “The Wrong Man,” he never looked back.
While this beautiful Universal package doesn’t include all of The Master’s classics (“Notorious,” “Rebecca,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Wrong Man,” “Strangers On a Train,” “Lifeboat,” “Suspicion,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” “The Lady Vanishes.” “The 39 Steps,” “Secret Agent,” “Sabotage” are all must-owns not here), what this collection does offer are at least 10 classics and near-classics from the second-half of an incomparable career.
Yeah, sure, there are a few duds here; no question. But at least they’re interesting duds that true Hitchcock fans will still want to own, if only for the extras. Each film comes with an extensive documentary that not only looks at the making of the film but also at where the director was in his career and life at the time.
With the possible exception of John Ford, no director is responsible for such a consistent output of objectively timeless films, which means that even his misfires were never the product of a lack of ambition, great moments, or a back story (covered in the extras) that doesn’t fascinate. For fans like myself who want to lose themselves in Hitchcock’s career as much as the films themselves, this collection is a dream come true.
Consider the above a full-throated recommendation of the collection as a whole. But just to whet your appetite, I’ll run through all 15 films; from favorite to least favorite. Though my all-time favorite, “Notorious” (my review is here) isn’t included here, my remaining top five most certainly are.
1. Psycho (1960) — Though he was sixty years-old during production, “Psycho” is the film of a young, hungry, twenty-something director — lean, mean, low-budget, and ballsy in its decision to kill off our protagonist less than an hour in and then tell us at the end that our new protagonist was the slasher. If the plot isn’t ruined in advance, “Psycho” will blow the minds of first-time viewers for centuries to come. Even more impressive is that you can watch it again and again without a single moment getting old.
2. North By Northwest (1959) — Rich, cosmopolitan Cary Grant has the world by the short hairs until he innocently summons help with sending a telegram at the exact wrong time. Before long he’s kidnapped, on the run, falling in love with Eva Marie Saint, and right in the middle of all kinds of dangerous spy-jinks. Hitchcock keeps the plot simple, the relationships brilliantly complicated, and the set-pieces iconic. Just writing about it makes me want to watch it again … for the hundredth time.
3. Rear Window (1954) — Hitchcock places his camera in Jimmy Stewart’s apartment and never lets it leave. From here we see everything our wheelchair-bound protagonist does; the everyday goings-on in an apartment complex across the way, a cold-blooded murder, and a sensual seduction courtesy of a Grace Kelly so ethereally beautiful she’ll make your heart ache. Be sure, though, to pay special attention to the film’s sound design during the story’s quieter moments. It really is something special.
4. Frenzy (1972) — As he did with “Psycho” more than a decade earlier, quite improbably, Hitchcock reinvented himself one last time. In his early seventies and with three artistic disappointments in a row behind him, The Master refused to rest on his laurels and came through with his final masterpiece; the brutal, R-rated story of a thoroughly unlikable protagonist set up and falsely accused of a series of ugly rapes and murders. All the Hitchcock touches remain in a film that in tone and style still feels fresh.
5. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) — In the form of the sweetest and most ordinary-looking man in America, Hitchcock drops a serial murderer into the sweetest and most ordinary small town in America. But it’s the mystery that works so well. A Hitchcock trademark is to never surprise. Instead, he always tortured the audience by letting us know about the danger long before the film’s characters. No matter how many times you might see “Shadow of a Doubt,” you always slowly die inside hoping everyone figures “Uncle Charlie” out before it’s too late.
6. Saboteur (1942) — Not one of Hitchcock’s most flashy or famous titles, but still one of his best. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane might not represent the kind of star power we’re used to in a Hitchcock film, but this patriotic thriller about an everyman wrongly accused of sabotaging an American aircraft plant is so tightly told and well acted, the casting actually works. There’s no “movie star” distance between us and our protagonist, which makes his plight and a dangerous but determined crusade to clear his name all the more relatable.
7. The Birds (1963) — Thought it’s a complete bastardization of Daphne Du Maurier’s brilliant short story of the same name and takes a while to get going, once it does you pretty much learn you can hold your breath for at least thirty minutes. Tippie Hedren is spectacular and under-appreciated as one of Hitchcock’s “ice queens,” and anchors the film with remarkable poise and intelligence. Hitch not only piles on the iconic set-pieces, he also kills off beloved characters and punches you in the gut with an ending you just didn’t see in films from this era.
8. Rope (1948) — Always experimenting and pushing himself, what Hitchcock does here is film his story in a single location and in one continuous shot (you’ll see how he works around running out of film every eight-minutes). To what end that works, I can’t really say. What does work, though, is a “Columbo” like mystery where we know a murder has been committed and by whom, which means that all the fun and suspense comes from waiting to see if Jimmy Stewart’s character can figure out what happened to the missing dinner party guest. Hitchcock was a genius at approaching adult themes with artistic methods that pleased censors and critics without ever diluting the subject matter to a point where we didn’t know what was going in. Hitchcock’s tale here is all about the price of nihilism and godlessness, wrapped in a homosexual relationship. But the kiddies will never know.
9. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) — Hitchcock remakes his own 1934 film, but this time in color and with an all-star cast (Jimmy Stewart, a very good Doris Day) and a huge budget. Though it all feels a little flat and anti-climactic, it’s never boring. Hitchcock’s longtime composer, Bernard Hermann, has a cameo in a twelve minute musical sequence that doesn’t quite pay off. Ironically, though, something missing from the rest of the film is Hermann’s score. With the exception of a few cues, the score is frustratingly absent from a story that needed all the help it could get.
10. Marnie (1964) — Part “Spellbound” (can one lover cure the other’s psychosis before it’s too late?), part “To Catch a Thief” (criminal activity breeds attraction and romance), “Marnie” is gorgeously filmed, cast with two gorgeous stars (Sean Connery, Tippi Hedren) and has a story that keeps turning to hold your interest. The problem, though, is that you never care about the characters or whether or not they can find a way to be together.
11. Vertigo (1958) — Though many consider “Vertigo” to be Hitchcock’s best, I find it only mildly interesting and a little overwrought. As the object of Jimmy Stewart’s twisted attraction, Kim Novak’s acting is a little stiff for my taste. Her make-up is also so bad, it’s distracting. There’s no doubt, however, that the film is filled with a number of extraordinary cinematic moments. Something of a critical and commercial flop when released, it’s since been “rediscovered,” but what people “discovered” has always been beyond me.
12. Torn Curtain (1966) — This patriotic Cold War thriller starring Julie Andrews and Paul Newman has its moments, but the dullish cinematography and a script everyone admits was half-baked weighs everything down. The low-point is the contrived way in which Newman secures the “MacGuffin,” the high-point is a brutal murder purposefully designed to show “how hard it is to kill a man” — but just okay is the climactic escape sequence that seems to go on forever. Sadly, it was during production of “Torn Curtain” that Hitchcock and composer Bernard Hermann had a falling out. His score was scrapped and the two never worked together again.
13. Topaz (1969) — Hitchcock’s first foray into a more modern and realistic style of filmmaking did get him out of the comfort of the studio and away from those stylish but artificial projected backgrounds, but the story is dull (given its subject-matter) and the characters impossible to care about. Set mostly in Castro’s Cuba as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, this espionage thriller just isn’t thrilling. It is, though, gorgeous to look at — “Mad Men” before “Mad Men.”
14. The Trouble with Harry (1955) — Hitchcock deserves credit for an ambitious attempt to bring together whimsy and the macabre, but the story of a dead body that won’t go away and how it brings members of a small town together romantically is frustratingly dull. Shot in New England at the height of Autumn, the beauty of the color is absolutely jaw-dropping in high-definition.
15. Family Plot (1976) — Hitchcock’s final film is unfortunately his worst; lifeless, charmless, and dull. You really shouldn’t be able to go wrong with a cast that includes William Devane, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, and Ed Lauter, but I have nothing to recommend here.
Well, again, what I can recommend for all of these films are the extras and the opportunity to lose yourself in the career of an extraordinary artist who always pushed himself, even at an age when even our greatest directors sit comfortably in a rut they spent decades digging.
Hitchcock might be known as “The Master of Suspense,” but that doesn’t mean he allowed himself to be button-holed. On top of every other accomplishment, Hitchcock explored the scope and depth of the “suspense” genre and proved that it was as limitless as storytelling itself.
Hitchcock died in 1980 at the age of 80, and left behind a cinematic legacy that includes at least two dozen masterpieces and/or near-classics. Few can or will ever be able to say the same. But unlike Matt Damon, Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar for his direction, or anything else.
How do you like them apples?
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