Where does one start when talking about the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock? The novel camera angles, the tightly-scripted stories or the uncanny ability to turn the mundane into a multifaceted mystery that is layered with intrigue? There is a reason he's called a master. With dozens of films, some of them routinely listed on people's "Top Ten" favorite films list, under his belt, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the world's most enduring directors. I've spent the last two weeks going through the dozen films in this "Masterpiece Collection" and I've decided, rather than going through each movie individually, I'll take the chance to write generally about the wonders of Hitchcock.
Suspense, like comedy, is all about timing and Hitchcock seemed to have a metronome sitting next to his editing bay because he always seemed to play the right note at the right moment. He rarely went for a cheap scare, preferring to build tension as Vera Miles climbed the stairs to mother's bedroom in "Psycho," or as the kids file out of the school in "The Birds." In both scenes there is a tremendous sense of dread or impending danger, yet in both scenes nothing happens. Yet earlier in "Psycho," while Janet Leigh is taking a shower after making the decision to return stolen cash to her boss, an unexpected visitor comes in to her secure room and takes her life. Even in this case, however, Hitchcock doesn't let the murderer jump out from the shadows. "Mother" is seen clearly entering the room, pulling the knife, and reaching for the shower curtain. Hitchcock telegraphs exactly what is coming, yet the act is so out-of-place that the audience is completely startled.
It's often said that Hitchcock was something of a misogynist who portrays women as weak, full of foible; silly and ultimately useless. Unfortunately there is little I've seen that contradicts that viewpoint. Even seemingly strong characters, as played by the aforementioned Janet Leigh, meet untimely ends. Leigh is killed as a plot device, Kim Novack is unable to make up her mind in "Vertigo," a pain that leads to her own death, and Eva Marie Saint takes the initiative to seek out her kidnapped son and missing husband in "North by Northwest" (after being left behind to host a party with other women) only to waffle on a plan of action, nearly costing her husband his life. Even when Hitchcock portrays strong women, they have flaws that are made integral to the plot.
Though Hitchcock is considered a master of suspense, there are examples of his ability to do other genres do exist within this box set. The most prescient film would be "The Trouble with Harry," a wonderful dark comedy that is both hilarious and disturbing as a portrait of a small town. Again, Hitchcock's timing is impeccable as he intertwines multiple stories to a less-than-dramatic climax.
Though it could be viewed as a suspense story, the novel nature of "Rope" as a cat-and-mouse game between a pair of murder conspirators and their dinner guests… including the mother of the victim and a police detective. The film's narrative is a series of near-misses as the murderers repeatedly flaunt their crime and do everything they can to expose their brilliance while keeping it secret. Again, Hitchcock's purported "Iron Fist" directorial style results in dynamic, wonderful films that continue to entertain decades later.
Anyone who owned the previous Hitchcock box sets will be disappointed to hear that the video quality on these DVDs is leagues better than before. A lot of care has been put into restoring these discs, some Anamorphic, others in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and they all look amazing. Whereas before "Psycho" was a blurry, dirty mess of scratches it now looks in line modern black-and-white films. The same goes for the classics like "The Birds," "Vertigo" and "The Trouble with Harry." The restoration work is amazing, though don't expect every film to look like new.
While not as impressive as the improvement in the video, the new audio tracks sound good. Considering some of these films are over a half-century old, they still sound remarkably good. The gem of the collection, "Psycho," contains a dynamic track that is clear and missing the familiar hiss that fans have dealt with for decades. Like the video, not every track is a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remastering, but most sound like improvements.
As far as I can tell, aside from the bonus documentary disc on this set, the extra features are leftovers from the previous Hitchcock box sets. That is, however, not a bad thing. In fact, I would have been incredibly disappointed if Universal had not included them. The retrospective documentaries include reflections from surviving stars and crew, talk about the story, Hitchcock the man, and the time in history the films come from. Without the bonus disc I would easily be able to award this set a 10. To go through each feature would take me weeks, and would be of little use to you as a reader. Suffice it to say, this set is worth procuring for these features alone.
Eschewing a long discussion of rehashed extras, I'd like to focus instead on the new content on the bonus disc on this set.
The "AFI Salute to Alfred Hitchcock" is a fifteen minute roast and tribute to Hitchcock, who sits dourly through the entire proceeding. Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, and George Stephens, Jr. are among the presenters who throw barbs and affection at their friend. And of course, Hitchcock himself gets the chance to respond and talk for a few minutes about his life and career. And, for a brief moment, if you look closely, you can see a smile cross his face.
"Masters of Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock" is a sit-down interview with Hitchcock. It comes from the 1980s and was shot on video and looks and sounds appropriately aged. Hitchcock himself is incredibly candid and honest while talking about the crafting of a film and working with actors. Anyone who enjoys Hitchcock will love this interview.
"All About The Birds" is an hour and twenty minute documentary that goes into incredible depth about the production of the film, its story, and the themes contained therein. It also talks about the new cinematic techniques that had to be perfected to create the effect of the titular birds. Using "The Birds" as a case study, the documentarians get into the head of Alfred Hitchcock.
"The Making of Psycho" is a similar deconstruction of Hitchcock's signature film. The documentary runs about an hour and a half and covers just about anything you would want to know about how the film was created.
The films alone make this set worth purchasing. The new audio and video transfers are absolutely gorgeous and make these wonderful films seem even better. The extra features are out of this world, matching the handsome package to create a truly definitive DVD collection.