November 27, 2011

The first Alfred Hitchcock film I ever saw was Psycho. Teenage me scoffed at the notion that a black and white movie that was made during the Eisenhower era could be as scream-inducing as “real scary movies” like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Leprechaun (that little green guy scared the hell out of me). Of course, I quickly realized that my initial impression of the film was 100% wrong. Not only was Psycho genuinely frightening, it’s also an exquisite piece of filmmaking. Even a layman like me knew I wasn’t just seeing a bunch of scenes that were randomly cut together; it was the first time I realized that there’s a true art to good filmmaking.

Hitchcock had a knack for telling incredibly rich and layered stories that appealed to both the wide masses and the deeper-thinking cinephiles. Now, arguably five of his best films have been remastered and boxed together in one glorious package that includes Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds. Hit the jump for our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection on DVD.

psycho-movie-posterPsycho (1960)

Arguably Hitchcock’s most famous film, Psycho begins with an unexpected theft before taking a sharp left turn down “holy shit” alley and never looking back. The director shot the film quickly with his television crew because studios doubted the film’s appeal, but Hitchcock ended up making one of the most iconic horror films in history. The story centers on a secretary—played with grace and gumption by Janet Leigh—who steals $40,000 from her employer and sets off on the run. She’s forced by a rainstorm to take refuge at the eerily quiet Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely and somewhat peculiar man.

Following a conversation-filled dinner with Bates (after which she decides she’s going to return home and turn herself in), she retires to the shower. You probably know what happens next, as Hitchcock kills off Psycho’s star in the first reel of the film. What follows is a suspense-filled investigation into what happened to Leigh’s character and the money she stole, anchored by a performance from Perkins that’s equal parts sympathetic and disturbing. Hitchcock’s calculated camera movements and placements incite a sense of dread and foreboding, and Bernard Hermann’s classic score adds a whole other layer of terror.

The quality of the DVD is pretty fantastic (though not as clear as the Blu-ray version). The bonus features here aren’t the most extensive, as they include production notes, the theatrical trailer, the re-release trailers, some newsreel footage from the film’s original release, behind-the-scenes photographs, lobby cards, and in a nice touch they’ve got a feature called The Shower Scene: Storyboards by Saul Bass.

north-by-northwest-posterNorth by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest is hands-down my favorite Hitchcock film. It’s an adventure pic that enraptures your attention at the get-go with the enchanting, Saul Bass-designed opening title sequence and never lets up. The film is a story of mistaken identity that centers on a Madison Avenue advertising executive (Cary Grant) who is chased all across the country by a team of agents from an unknown organization. Going into the movie, really the less you know about the story the better. Hitchcock masterfully takes the audience on this ride from the point of view of Grant’s character, so we’re piecing together the pieces of the puzzle as it moves along. Eva Marie Sant co-stars here in a strong and nuanced performance as a curious woman who befriends Grant while he’s on the run.

The film is again buoyed by one of Bernard Hermann’s best scores. The extravagant orchestra adds extra suspense to the lavish set pieces that include the iconic airplane sequence, and a fight atop Mount Rushmore. North by Northwest is an out-and-out crowd-pleaser that dares you to lose interest, and Grant’s understated everyman performance has you rooting for the protagonist in a way that few films achieve. Granted, the Mount Rushmore sequence comes a bit out of left field, but we’re so enthralled by the story that minor quibbles are of little importance to our enjoyment overall.

The transfer is again fairly pristine here, though if you’re an avid admirer of North by Northwest I’d advise you to pick up the 50th anniversary Blu-ray version, which is loaded with special features. Speaking of which, the bonus features found here are bare-bones, with only a commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman and a music-only audio track included with the disc. The music-only track is a pretty nifty little experiment and really lets Hitchcock’s talent as a visual storyteller shine.

rear-window-posterRear Window (1954)

While North by Northwest is my favorite of the bunch, Rear Window is a close second. The delightfully voyeuristic film stars James Stewart as a professional photographer confined to his apartment after breaking his leg. As one does, he uses the rear window of his apartment and a fresh pair of binoculars to observe the goings on of a courtyard and building of apartments directly across from his dwelling space to pass the time. After noticing that one of the tenants’ wives is gone, and having seen the husband clean a large knife and saw before hauling off a hefty packing crate, Stewart becomes convinced that something fishy is going on.

He confides in his girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly, and the two set out on the most suspenseful Richard Dreyfuss-less stakeout of all time. Hitchcock filmed the entire movie on Paramount soundstages, with a seriously epic set constructed so that the director could film directly into the adjacent apartment building. The set design itself is a thing of beauty, but Hitchcock’s camera work here is astoundingly masterful. We get the story from Stewart’s bird’s eye view, which lets the suspense slowly build to a nerve-wracking climax in which we feel as helpless as Stewart’s character.

Again, the transfer is top-notch. The special features are pretty great as well, as we get the documentary Rear Window Ethics which features a number of people discussing, well, the ethics of the film. The great Peter Bogdanovich appears, interviewing Hitchcock himself. We also hear from people like Curtis Hanson, and the film’s assistant director Herbert Coleman. Additional special features include “A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes”, production photographs and notes, the theatrical trailer, and the film’s re-release trailer narrated by James Stewart.

vertigo-movie-posterVertigo (1958)

Vertigo is a peculiar part of Hitchcock’s filmography. Upon its release, the film was met with mixed reviews, and was basically written off as one of the director’s lesser works. However, a sort of renaissance occurred in the mid 1980s when the film was re-released in theaters and then on home video. After further re-evaluation, Vertigo is now referred to as the director’s masterpiece, as well as one of the best films of all time. It’s an undeniably dark film, and is arguably Hitchcock’ most personal work.

The film centers on a retired police detective (James Stewart) suffering from acrophobia (vertigo). He’s hired as a private investigator to follow the wife (Kim Novak) of an acquaintance in order to get to the bottom of her strange behavior. The woman’s husband believes that she’s possessed by an otherworldly presence. We follow Stewart at a meticulous pace as he shadows Novak throughout San Francisco. Hitchcock makes great use of the city, framing it beautifully as a backdrop in many scenes.

The Master of Suspense shocks audiences with more than a few twists in the story, and the psychological thriller takes a dark turn in its startlingly abrupt conclusion. It’s definitely one of the director’s deeper works, as the pic will have you hashing out the story in your head days after it’s ended.

The transfer of Vertigo is one of the best in the bunch. Hitchcock’s great use of, and experimentation with, color comes through beautifully and to great effect. The special features include a truly horrendous alternate ending that Hitchcock was forced to film for foreign censors, as well as the documentary Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece that details the painstaking restoration of the film. Also included are a feature commentary with associate producer Herbert Coleman and the restoration team of Robert Harris and James Katz, as well as production notes and the original and restoration trailers.

the-birds-movie-posterThe Birds (1963)

My least favorite film of the group is Hitchcock’s avian horror pic The Birds. Loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, the legend goes that Hitchcock told screenwriter Evan Hunter to disregard the plot of the novel; all he wanted was the title and the idea of a bunch of birds attacking people. The story begins in Hitchcockian fashion as a wealthy young socialite (Tippi Hedren) meets a young man (Rod Taylor) in a pet shop in San Francisco. He’s looking to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister’s birthday, but in the process pretends to mistake Hedren for a salesperson, much to her chagrin. She (rather crazily) tracks down his address and sneaks into his home to leave the birds and a note. However, on her trek back across the bay, a bird nicks her on the head. Taylor sees this and insists she come with him.

The film chronicles the inexplicable growing aggression of the birds in the small California bay town, as Hedren shacks up with Taylor, his disapproving mother, and sister. Personally, the story never clicked for me. The characters seem weaker than usual for Hitchcock, and the whole birds thing never really hooked me. The horror aspect of the film hinges on the viewer’s reaction to the furious fowls. The special effects were cutting edge at the time, and to Hitchcock’s credit the overall air of horror still mostly works (especially when eyeballs start to go missing), but I was never quite as terrified of the film as most of my peers were.

The special features here include the “original ending” that Hunter wrote but Hitchcock never filmed. It features the script pages interspersed with storyboards that play out the extended ending. It’s not all that different from the ending that stands now, just more drawn out. Also included on the disc are deleted scenes, Hedren’s screen test, newsreel footage, production photographs and notes, and the theatrical trailer.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this box set is perfect for the amateur Hitchcock admirer. While it may not be extensive enough for the diehard fan (to which I would recommend the all-encompassing Masterpiece Collection), it’s the perfect starter kit for the burgeoning film buff or Hitchcock newbie. These five films offer some of the best filmmaking history has to offer from a true master director. They’re pretty damn entertaining too. If you’ve never seen Psycho because you don’t think a black and white movie can be as “scary” as Saw 18, do yourself a favor and add the film to your Netflix queue. You won’t be disappointed.

*Side Note: In a nice touch, the set also includes mini recreations of the original posters for each of the five films.


Latest News