REBECCA, SPELLBOUND and NOTORIOUS Blu-ray Reviews

     April 21, 2012

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There are many ups and downs in Alfred Hitchcock’s long and varied career. From the British filmmaker who was learning his craft to the skilled thriller filmmaker we know today, there were many periods of uncertainy and compromise in his filmography. After proving his mastery with such films as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes in England, Hitch was invited to America to work for David O. Selznick. It led to Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious, which Fox has now put out on Blu-ray, and through the three you can see Hitchhcock learning how to work in America while retaining and refining his voice. Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, and Cary Grant star in the movies, and our review of the three follow after the jump.

rebecca-movie-image1940’s Rebecca was Hitch’s first American production. He worked from a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (who wrote the book on which The Birds was based), and it’s fair to say Hitchcock’s auteurship here is shared with David O. Selznick. Hitch was new to the country, while Selznick was just coming off of Gone with the Wind, the most successful film in movie history. This is Hitchcock before he became “Hitchcock,” and this is a great director who was as much custodian as author.

Joan Fontaine plays the unnamed lead, who starts the film as a hired friend to an old woman, but meets Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and when she’s about to leave their vacation, he proposes. They are to go back to house called Manderlay, which is run by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Maxim likes his new bride the way she is, but she feels underwater when dealing with being a member of polite society. She meets many of Maixm’s friends, but finds the house and her life haunted by Maxim’s first (and deceased) wife Rebecca. Making things worse is Mrs. Danvers, who makes the new Mrs. De Winter make a number of errors – including dressing like the deceased.

The new bride worries that she can’t compare, but it turns out there’s a huge secret behind Rebecca’s passing, and it leads to a murder investigation where Rebecca’s cousin Jack (George Sanders) feels he has some ways to use it to his advantage.

rebecca-blu-ray-coverThough there are Hitchcockian things about the film, the film was more of a project for hire for the master. Perhaps that’s why it’s his only film to win a best picture Oscar. There are things that feel distinctly his though, specifically Olivier’s performance as Maxim. The droll, slightly detached love figure is something that’s populated a number of his films, from Notorious to Marnie.

But these are auterist notes. Rebecca is a fine film, with a great leading performance by Joan Fontaine. Though she had a number of other prominent roles, this is her great triumph, and she’s perfect on screen, projecting the insecurity of the character, and the life that would draw Maxim to her. It’s hard to watch the film and not get a crush on her. No wonder Selznick auditioned so many women for the role: it’s a star making performance, and it’s a wonderfully entertaining film. But more than that – and perhaps the reason it’s going to be remade (and has been remade twelve times for television) – is that the central conceit is great, and the main character is a great audience surrogate.

Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in full frame (1.33:1) and in DTS-HD 2.0 mono Master audio. This is an older picture but it’s been looked after. It’s not as crisp as some black and white films, but the transfer is good. The film comes with a commentary by Richard Schickel, and it also comes with an isolate music and effects track. There’s a making of (28 min.) which mostly speaks to scholars and filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich, and it’s followed by “The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier” (19 min.), which explores the author’s background and her film work. It’s followed by two screen tests (9 min.), one with Margaret Sullavan, and the second with Vivien Leigh and Olivier. It’s followed by three radio play versions of the film, one from 1938 with Orson Welles (60 min.), a 1941 version from Cecil B. DeMille (59 min.), and a 1950 version (60 min.) with Leigh and Olivier. There’s audio interview with Hitchcock, with Bogdanovich (4 min.), and Francois Truffaut (9 min.). The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.

spellbound-movie-image1945’s Spellbound came after a couple of years of similar director-for-hire work, as he bounced from studio to studio. Some of these films were great (Shadow of a Doubt) some very minor (Mr. and Mrs. Smith). Spellbound reunited the director with Selznick and brought in Ben Hecht, one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history. Hitch was deeply fascinated with psychotherapy (as were a number of Hollywood types), and that lay the groundwork for the film, but where the use of Freudian analysis has been strong in a number of his later films, here everything is so surface it can’t conceal a very silly story.

The film follows shrink Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) as a new doctor (Gregory Peck) comes to their clinic. He seems ill at ease doing actual work, but he and Dr. Petersen go out to the country and fall madly in love. He reacts poorly to stripes, and it seems that he’s not the doctor he promised he was. And when he might be accused of murder the two flee while trying to find his real identity.

The set up is pure Hitchcock: the mistaken identity, the chase, and many other details, but none of the pieces come into place. For one, there’s never a real sense of the menace chasing them, and with the main character an amnesiac, it doesn’t pop. On top of that the solution to the mystery just doesn’t come together, and the language of therapy as presented here isn’t that cinematic. Though Marnie spells it out a little bit too much as well, the psychology is internalized, while here everything is made all to explicit.

spellbound-blu-ray-coverWhat marks the film as a must-see – even as a flawed Hitchcock – is a sequence that was created by Salvador Dali: a dream sequence that Bergman must deconstruct to find out the truth of Peck’s character. The problem is that it doesn’t feel dream-like so much as a sequence directed by Dali. There is interesting imagery in it, but it stops the film cold in a lot of ways. Dreams are specific, and I always attribute a quote to critic Mike D’Angelo who said movies about dreams are like putting a hat onto a hat. Films are dreams. You can tell Hitch learned a lot from the making of this film, and it’s a fascinating failure.

Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in full frame (1.33:1) and in 2.0 DTS-HD mono master audio. Again, similar transfer to Rebecca. The film comes with a commentary by film professors Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirex Berg. The regular supplements kick off with a documatary called “Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali” (20 min.) with the usual suspects from the previous supplements talking about the collaboration between the two great artists. It’s followed by a making of called “Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing Spellbound” and “A Cinderella Story: Rhoda Flemming” (10 min.) which focuses on one of the supporting players (who is still alive). Since many of the main players are dead it’s a nice fluff piece. The 1948 radio play (60 min.) with Joseph Cotton and Valli is included, as is a Bogdanovich (15 min.) audio interview, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

But if Rebecca is a great movie but not great Hitchcok, and Spellbound is a Hitchcock misfire, then Notorious is a great Hitchcock movie, period. It’s one of his best. Working again with producer David O. Selznick and writer Ben Hecht, this is Hitchcock firing on all cylanders throughout the film.

notorious-movie-imageBergman returns, but this time as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi agent. The film begins with her father’s trial, where she refuses to speak against her father who – while jailed – kills himself. She’s been a drunk (and likely a floozy) when she’s stopped by Devlin (Cary Grant), who offers her a job working against the Nazis. She agrees and goes to South America to ingratiate herself with some of her old pals. As Devlin and Alicia work together, there’s a mutual attraction, but her assignment gets in the way: she must get close to Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), and the government’s plan is for her to marry the man.

She does so, and that’s partly how the title comes in. She’s notorious for being easy, as it were. Their coupling is believable, but she has an inner tension as she doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing. But she has to find out Sebastian’s secrets.

When Hitchcock is at his best, there’s usually an interesting moral question at the center of those films. For Bergman’s character, is the work she’s doing worth prostituting herself? In that way the film can be seen as progressive, as the film doesn’t judge her for working for the government in such a way. Here also is a perfect example of a Hitchcockian MacGuffen. There is something in the wine cellar, and it’s Bergman’s job to find out what that is, but what that is isn’t as important as what the film is really about. At the end of the film, you know what the bad guys are doing, but it’s not as meaningful as the emotional story, which involves a love triangle. There’s also great Hitchcockian supporting players, with Louis Calhern playing the ambivalent bearucrat, and Leopoldine Konstantin as Mrs. Constantin, the very dominering mother. Characters that are very familiar Hitchcockian players.

notorious-blu-ray-coverBut if Notorious sings, it’s because of the perfect triangle of the leads. Grant’s character is the distant but attractive male who’s in charge, yet can’t help feel hurt that Alicia must sleep with the enemy. Bergman’s perfect as the put upon woman who makes herself into a whore to feel that she’s done the right thing, while Rains is the consumate anti-villain. Mostly a pathetic man in the film, you feel sorry for him, even though he is a nazi scumbag. Those performances, and Hitchcock’s absolute perfect control behind the camera makes this a masterpiece. And it would be easy to talk about the brilliant crane shot, but in terms of knowing where to put the camera, Hitch was a master and every shot selection in the film serves a narrative purpose while still being clever. If you only buy one of these films on Blu-ray, this is the one to grab.

Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in 2.0 DTS-HD mono, with the film in full frame (1.33:1). The transfer is like the others, great, but not spectacular. The film comes with two commentaries, the first by professor Rick Jewell, and the second by professor Drew Casper. Both tackle different interests in the film, with Casper talking more about Hitchcock’s cinematic approach to the material. The film also comes with an isolated music and effects track. There’s a making of (28 min.), and it’s followed by “Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Sypmaster” (13 min.) which gives him credit for basically creating the spy movie formula followed by Bond and the like. There’s also footage from the American Film Institute Award (3 min.) where Bergman gives the key from the film back to her director. It’s followed by the 1948 radio play version (60 min.) with Bergman and Joseph Cotton, and Bogdanovich (2 min.) and Truffaut (16 min.) audio interviews. There’s a restoration comparison (3 min.) which shows the damage removed, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

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