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Good evening. Tonight, I have a prepared a variety of reviews based on the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s, finest films. Due to the sheer volume of films involved in this so-called Masterpiece Collection, a total of 15: 14 owned by Universal, one leased from Warner Bros. I’m dividing this discussion into five separate reviews and am basing this division on release date, not popularity or alleged ‘director era.’ Thank you for your attention.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3

Marnie


I first saw Marnie a long time before I knew it was among Hitchcock’s less well-received films. This may account for my considering it high among the Master’s ‘misfires’ – I had no preconceptions about it and preconceptions are often a problem for older films. Some are over-loved due to popularity, while others are left to wallow in obscurity, simply because the popular opinion was against them from the start. Not that any of Hitchcock’s post-fame films would ever wallow in ‘obscurity’ for long. Marnie is full of problems, but much like Vertigo, it overcomes many of them through sheer force of excessive artistic will on Hitchcock’s part. Often, it actually feels like the director is trying to recreate Vertigo’s themes of obsession and psychosis through similarly dream-induced visual styles. The screenplay even features similarly heavy-handed, over-explained, and over-simplified psychological issues that lead to a far-fetched romantic relationship. In the end, Marnie is like an early ‘70s giallo with an incredibly low-body count with Hitchcock spending the same energy Dario Argento or Sergio Martino normally spend on murder on less violent set-pieces. This assessment jibes with accusations of Marnie being a particularly misogynistic film, since the entire giallo tradition is often labeled as such. I’d agree that Hitch doesn’t present the most positive female protagonist, but Marnie is still a strong character in her own unique way. Tippi Hedren has the wherewithal to capture the title character’s various shades without unreasonable levels of melodrama, but often loses an uphill battle against a lot of expositional dialogue that probably should’ve played out in her mind only. Technically speaking Marnie is a sort of ‘secret virtuoso’ title that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to its style, but there are still a handful of spectacularly impressionistic standout sequences that do not disappoint. These include the safe heist, which features amazing use of the 1.85:1 frame and teeth-bitingly suspenseful use of sound, and the vertigo-inducing flashback.

Marnie is the first of three films that brought up huge video quality questions when the collection was first released for review in the UK, which led Universal to push back the US and UK releases. Universal’s official statement reads: ‘Certain imperfections with the product have come to light and, as a result, we are adjusting the release date to correct these points. Our goal is to always deliver the best possible product to our consumers.’ This doesn’t really tell me what was wrong with the release, but I’m going to guess it had something to do with the digital noise I’m seeing here. I’m also assuming that what I’m seeing here is mostly CRT machine noise, not the effects of natural film grain. At its worst, this noise creates moiré patterns against background textures, but the bigger issue is that it never really lets up. I’m also running into the issue of not really knowing what Marnie is ‘supposed’ to look like. This release is, at times, excessively soft and diffused, but so was the old DVD release. Perhaps that was the intended look. It’s certainly disconcerting and also leads to ghosting along the harder edges, though very little in terms of the usual sharpening effects that plague some of the other transfers here. Still, details are pretty tight, even when the edges are constantly being softened (often on purpose) and slightly doubled, especially the complex textures and patterns of the wardrobe. Colour quality is definitely more vibrant than previous releases, especially the repeating green, yellow, and red motifs (the red hallucinations are particularly vivid), though it’s also a bit cooler-shaded overall. The hues do bleed out pretty often, but are nicely supported by deep blacks that largely stay within the provided lines even when the cleaner white levels are blooming.

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is about average for the collection. The sound floor is set low enough to ensure silence is genuinely silent and the disc’s uncompressed qualities allow for dynamic high volume moments without noticeable distortion. The effects work isn’t particularly busy, but there is plenty going on throughout the track, including violent storms, busy office buildings, and the steady murmur of a horseracing track. Dialogue is a bit flat with consistent volume levels and is rarely lost in the rush of other soundtrack elements. Marnie marked Herrmann’s final collaboration with Hitchcock after the two had a falling out over the tone of his unused Torn Curtain score. It’s not Herrmann’s most memorable work, but it’s very aggressive, romantic, and given a nice, warm treatment here. Once again, there’s so much well-separated sound throughout the score that I’m almost surprised I’m not listening to a dual channel track.

Extras include:
  • The Trouble with Marnie retrospective documentary (58:40, SD)
  • The Marnie Archives image gallery (9:00, SD)
  • Theatrical trailer


 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3


Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3

Torn Curtain


Torn Curtain is another Hitchcock film I’ve never actually sat down to watch, but always feel like I've seen based on clip usage in various Hitchcock documentaries. This first, top-to-bottom viewing is another interesting experience in finding disappointment in a film that, minus Hitch’s involvement, would likely be considered among the mid-‘60s better political thrillers. It’s also evidentially a model for the Mission Impossible series. Despite leading Hollywood for nearly three decades, the post-studio system caught up with Hitchcock very quickly. Only three years after the wild success of The Birds, the Master is clearly flummoxed by the likes of new generation superstar Paul Newman’s method acting (if you ever want to kill an hour ask a British actor/director over 50 his/her opinion on method acting), fighting with his long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann over the tone of the score, and generally not having a place between the blossoming independent film movement and Hollywood’s bigger ‘machine’ films. Still, Torn Curtain is a big-budget thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring two of Hollywood’s all time biggest superstars (who remembers that Julie Andrews was a Hitchcock girl?), so there isn’t a lot to lose. The script issues that plagued the film right up to the end of production (the screenplay was written by novelist Brian Moore, then extensively re-written by Billy Liar writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse) are made apparent through uneven pacing and predictable mysteries that are still indulgently over-complicated. The film’s tone is appropriately melancholic, a quality likely benefited from Newman and Hitchcock’s behind the scenes skirmishes, but the lack of contrasting humour makes for an occasionally listless experience. I suppose the standout sequences here would include one where Newman is menaced as he wanders through an empty art museum (Dario Argento snagged parts of this for Stendhal Syndrome) and a genuinely excruciating death scene that seems to go on forever (both in an amusing and disturbing way).

This disc features the second of this set’s, let’s say, ‘less liked’ 1080p transfers. The problems here are similar to those of the Marnie disc, though a little less heavily defined. Once again, I think this is a case of CRT machine noise, not film grain, and confusion concerning the look of the source material, which I assume is softer simply because soft was often Hitch’s preferences (focus is pulled especially tight this time). Looking at the screencaps provided by Jonathan (my only solid source for comparison) it appears that many of the digital artefacts were already an issue, leading me to the further assumption that there was very little upgrade between versions. The diffusion and occasional moiré effects are certainly distracting, though. I found it pretty easy to ignore the issue as the film progressed, but there must’ve been a way to avoid the issue, even if it meant re-scanning the source material. Details are sharper and more complex than a DVD could manage, including some tight close-up textures and standout establishing shots. The utter clarity of some of these wide shots goes further to validate my theory that Torn Curtain was always a soft looking film in medium shots and close-up. Also, like the Marnie release, edge enhancement effects are largely replaced by ghosting haloes on some shots. The Technicolor hues are certainly brighter and warmer than what I’m seeing from the SD disc, not to mention generally sharply cut, despite all the digital fuzz. The most vivid reds, again, suffer the most obvious bleeding effects and some of the neutral hues feature colour aberration.

For whatever reason (better source material, more contrast in the source material) the film’s final scenes, specifically the scenes that take place in the theatre, feature a substantial improvement in image quality, including more even noise that looks like actual film grain, sharper lines, and a generally more natural image.

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono soundtrack follows the continuing suit set by the other tracks in the set. It’s plenty loud without notable distortion, dialogue is clear without artificial tinges, and surprisingly busy for a single-channel treatment, though Hitchcock’s patented love of utter silence is supported by a nice, clean sound floor. As stated, Torn Curtain was originally going to feature another Herrmann score, but fighting ensued and John Addison was hired to make some more ‘upbeat’ music (which is funny, considering how dysphoric most of the film is, otherwise). Herrmann’s touch is missed, but Addison’s score features strong, hummable themes and big brassy moments that could’ve easily overwhelmed a compressed soundtrack. The music is the most aggressive element throughout, but doesn’t overwhelm the more immersive qualities of some of the effects.

Extras include:
  • Torn Curtain Rising retrospective documentary (32:30, SD)
  • Scene montage featuring Bernard Herrmann’s original rejected score (14:40, SD)
  • Production photos
  • Theatrical trailer


 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3


Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3

Topaz


Topaz is probably the one film in this collection I am least familiar with, mostly because no one seems to like it very much. It’s very much a companion piece to Torn Curtain, from contemporary political text and excessive plotting, to a lack of the director’s patented dry wit. It’s also another perfect example of Hitchcock trying to redefine himself to maintain relevance in post- Bonnie and Clyde/ Easy Rider Hollywood. There’s little uniquely Hitchcockian about this film, which alone marks it as at least an interesting experiment. There aren’t many of the director’s touchstone elements on parade (no wrongly accused men, no cool blondes, no real psychological trauma, no evil mothers), to the point that it’s often entirely indiscernible from any other adeptly-made thriller from the late ‘60s. As in the case of Torn Curtain, I again assume that if it wasn’t a Hitchcock film it would’ve been better received at the time of its release. I could imagine someone like Terrence Young or John Frankenheimer turning out something very similar. Still, Hitch clocks in some occasionally on full show-off, starting with the film’s dialogue-free, post-credit slow-chase sequence (there isn’t a word of pertinent dialogue spoken for about 15 minutes), and a stunning overhead shot of Karin Dor’s death throes. Among the film’s more substantial problems is its runtime, the longest of any Hitchcock film (it was originally released theatrically in a shorter version). It’s as if he lost interest in making non-montage editorial decisions in his old age. Instead of ignoring exorbitant plotting in favour of a good set-piece (the Hitchcock equivalent to a musical number), Topaz tries to have it both ways. Some people apparently complain about the lack of star power in the cast, but any movie featuring Frederick Stafford, John Vernon, Michel Piccoli, Roscoe Lee Brown, and John Forsythe sounds well-staffed to me.

Topaz is apparently so unpopular that I heard/found absolutely no buzz about/on this new 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. I’d count this among the set’s stronger transfers with one big exception, which I will get to in just a second. Grain levels appear natural and not too blotchy or inconsistent. Details are very precise from close-up textures to complex backgrounds, especially considering the film’s age (comparably sharper than any of the other discs in this final section of my review), and, probably most pertinent following the previous two reviews, very little in terms of telecine noise effects. Here, the softer and diffused shots appear as one would expect. The problem here is over-sharpening, which is nice for those detail levels, but terrible for crisscrossing patterns and cakes almost every contrasting edge with thick, white haloes. There is no excuse for enhancement effects quite this severe, unfortunately, which marks this transfer as problematic. Color plays an important thematic role, like it does in Vertigo and Marnie, and is vivid and refined around those otherwise unwanted haloed edges. The minor DNR application flattens out some of the skin tones and brown backgrounds, but I’m very satisfied with the overall sturdiness of the acrylic and pastel hues. Print damage is mostly a non-issue, aside from small white flecks, but there are odd shots that suddenly lose detail quality, increase grain, thicken black edges, muddy colours, and feature a snowstorm of small artefacts. These are such a rare exception to the rule that I assume the disc’s producers were working from a range of negative materials, some of which weren’t in very good shape (this does not apply to the stock footage mixed into the film, which should look a bit different from the other material).

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono soundtrack once again basically matches the expectations set by the rest of the set. The mono treatment can sound a bit muddled when the track gets busy, but still generally crisp enough to capture the very basic dynamic ranges of the mix and impresses more than it does not. The key shortcoming here that doesn’t appear on the many of the other tracks is the hiss that accompanies some of the harshly aspirated consonances. Otherwise, dialogue is clear and relatively natural. Maurice Jarre’s music is a bit overstated and overused at times. It often sounds as if the composer is trying to do his best impression of Herrmann and is more successful when evoking John Barry and giving things a bit of a jazz fusion. The dialogue is never lost in the sometimes flat single-channel mix, specifically not where effects are concerned, but the occasionally intrusive drone of music makes it a little difficult to separate from the dialogue just in terms of awkward contrasts.

Extras include:
  • Three alternate endings (6:20, SD)
  • Topaz: An Appreciation (29:20, SD) retrospective featurette with critic Leonard Maltin
  • A storyboard gallery
  • Production photos
  • Theatrical trailer


 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3


Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3

Frenzy


Following the creative and financial disappointment of the generally un-Hitchcock Topaz the director returned to familiar themes, including murder, a ‘wrong man’ story motif, and virtuoso camera movements with Frenzy. He also returned to England for the film’s setting and the comfort of his dark, wry sense of humour. Though brimming with familiarity, Frenzy is a thoroughly modern in terms of its brutal, R-rated violence (the only Hitchcock film that deserves the rating, despite changes in public standards) and, gasp, nudity. The uptake in violence does seem a bit excessive coming from the normally droll Hitch. Coupled with the fact that he was stepping back into familiar territory to placate disappointed audiences (at least a little), the excess makes Frenzy feel more like a predecessor to Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock homage practices than a proper Hitchcock flick. I don’t see this as a problem, personally. Frenzy gives us a glimpse of what we might’ve expected, had he lived long enough to settle into a slightly more B-film space and resembles him at his most comfortable in the modern era. The comedy missing from the previous three films is immediately made an important part of the equation, but soon the film’s aggressive air of conflict and menace overtakes even the dry wit. Dick, our aptly named protagonist, played by Jon Finch doing his best Oliver Reed, is immediately at odds with the other rude people around him, save the film’s bloody killer. This antipathetic tone, tinged by the satire of British societal morals is another artefact of the early ‘70s era. I assume that controversial, anti-establishment films, like Sam Peckinpah’s UK-set Straw Dogs, inspired Hitch to create this particularly distressing environment. His casting of Barry Foster and Billie Whitelaw, both of whom appeared in Roy Boulting’s post-Hitchcockian, pre-slasher thriller Twisted Nerve, seems to verify that he was aware of and ready to embrace the trends his brand of filmmaking was taking on.

If you heard only vague rumblings that something had gone wrong with this release, those complaints were probably in reference to Frenzy, not Topaz or The Birds. This newly mastered, 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is exactly the kind of excessive digital overhaul purists fear every time an older film is released. And we were just two discs away from retirement. At first glance, things appear normal, even good, but soon enough, more thick, white edge-enhancement and other over-sharpening effects rear their head, even more aggressively than they did on the Topaz disc. Not only do the characters appear to be shrouded in force fields, every white shade is pumped up to the point of glare. Teeth, eyes, and shiny skin pieces look especially goofy here. I suppose the comparison to Topaz’s haloes is arguable, but their comparative DNR really isn’t. Topaz has issues, but Frenzy is slathered in texture and grain-destroying digital tampering. This isn’t so much the brand of excessive DNR that creates waxy side effects (ala Fox’s Predator re-release), it’s the kind that flattens everything and creates blotchy backgrounds (ala Lionsgate’s Near Dark release). This isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen, but is the kind of amateur mistake that shouldn’t have plagued such a high-profile release. These two issues do, I suppose, do wonders for the harsh separation of colour elements. The hues and tones are mostly natural and subdued, given the films neutral period palette with some standout hues, specifically vibrant reds that appear very consistent from source element to source element. The brutally sharp white levels also have the counter-effect of deepening and homogenizing the blacks.

The other problem here, which I probably would’ve never noticed on my own, is that the studio apparently recreated the open titles’ typography (seemingly because they found a cleaner helicopter plate). A little Google-fu led me to Enthusiasm.org, a blog by one Nick Wrigley, who points out that not only did the producers fail to recreate the original films font – they made spelling errors! See Wrigley’s comparison here.

This disc features another strong DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono soundtrack with higher volume levels and rich musical representations. The final soundtrack was scored by Ron Goodwin after Hitchcock fired Henry Mancini for reportedly trying to sound too much like Bernard Herrmann. Goodwin’s music isn’t wall-to-wall, so it doesn’t tango with effects and dialogue too regularly, but, when given its proper turn to shine, is bold and brassy without a loss of depth. The problems here revolve mostly around the dialogue, which isn’t ever muddy, but inconsistent in terms of natural warmth versus tinnier words that occasionally tinge of high-end distortion. It’s the inconsistency that makes these relatively minor issues standout so thoroughly. Jon Finch’s voice in particular is an issue here, probably because he spends most of the film yelling. Noise reduction effects also crop up on the dialogue track as the sound floor bottoms out between words, only hiss again as words are spoken. Effects work is also a bit tinny, but rarely scattered or too artificial sounding.

Extras include:
  • The Story of Frenzy retrospective featurette (44:50, SD)
  • Production photos
  • Theatrical trailer


 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3


Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3

Family Plot


Hitchcock’s final film is another one I find myself shamefully ignorant of. I even remember wrongfully thinking Family Plot was a remake of The Trouble with Harry for some time. I may have even double-checked the Internet to make sure it wasn’t before starting this Blu-ray. Embarrassing. Family Plot wasn’t planned as Hitch’s farewell film, but going out on a light-hearted comedy seems a fitting end to a career full of winks and nudges. As in the cases of Torn Curtain and Topaz, one assumes that Family Plot would’ve been better received had it been directed by someone like Joseph Mankiewicz or Sidney Lumet. Hitchcock’s patented touch is certainly missing and the broad qualities of the comedy keep things from ever being particularly suspenseful, but there’s no specific creative shortcoming. I actually kind of like this more naturalistic take on the subject matter. The screenplay, written by North By Northwest and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenwriter Ernest Lehman (based on Victor Canning’s book) is a bit wordy, but Hitch’s patented silent storytelling is still alive and kicking when a good set-piece gives him a chance to strut his stuff (the priest kidnapping and funny roadside diner scenes being prime examples). This wordy quality is also usually forgivable, because the dialogue is so glib. Family Plot verges on Altman-esque in terms of cast size, but the contrasting qualities of these characters are enough to make keeping track of them and their interlacing stories a simple chore. Hitch’s developing distaste for the high salary demands of Hollywood stars following Topaz led him to hire a cast of likeable cult favourites, including William Devane, Karen Black, Ed Lauter, and Bruce Dern, all of whom are quite charming.

Family Plot is the final disc in the set (obviously) and the last of the bad buzz transfer mishaps. Unfortunately, once again, the rumours are true and Family Plot may feature the most disappointing transfer in the entire collection. I admit that I’m not technically savvy enough to verify my assumptions that the weird noise patterns on Marnie and Torn Curtain are definitively related to issues with CRT scanning, but I can almost guarantee that what I’m seeing is telecine machine noise. The issue here is very similar to the problems plaguing some of Blue Underground and Arrow’s less successful HD releases, and those have almost all been attributed to bad CRT scans from Italy. Here, the problem looks like major DNR enhancement coupled with a fine mesh of Photoshop spatter effects around most of the fine edges. Details are damaged in the process and the sharpest edges exhibit additional haloes as well. This is a consistent problem, but there are ups and downs to the thickness of the noise, so the transfer isn’t a total wash. Looking at Jonathan’s caps, it’s clear that there are some sequences that have been cleaned up since the original DVD release, though you’d normally expect something this over-digitalized would feature even fewer print damage artefacts. The process shots specifically are rife with dirt and scratches. It’s also clear that the colours are a bit warmer this time, which mostly matches the precedent set by the other transfers in this collection. Colours are generally pretty strong all around with a few flat and beige exceptions appearing during darker shots. Black levels are strong, though perhaps too strong, considering the crushed quality of the night sequences.

The final DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack continues the set’s streak of better than expected mixes with surprisingly deep soundscapes, despite single channel treatments. This particular track sounds a bit more compact and centered than some of the others, but is never buzzy and doesn’t feature any major distortion. Effects are, again, moderate, including the most basic incidental noises, like the hum of cars, and minor crowd noise. These are plenty clean, as is the dialogue, which matches similar era releases for noise reduction effects. John Williams’ score is extremely playful, matching the film’s tone to a T. It’s also a surprisingly Williams-esque score, not something you’d expect from a Hitchcock film. The score is round and warm with nice kettle drum bass bumps and intricate instrumentations. The music sits under the dialogue and effects without tripping over them and is given a nice, bombastic range when necessary.

Extras include:
  • Plotting Family Plot (48:20, SD)
  • Chase scene storyboards
  • Production photos
  • Trailers


 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3
 Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 3


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