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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. I am basing this division on release date, not popularity or alleged ‘director era.’ Thank you for your attention.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 1

Saboteur


I start this long trek through master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Most Iconic Films’ (Universal’s wording) with Saboteur, one of several films in this collection I assumed I had seen at some point, but probably only saw in parts via dozens of documentaries on the director. I also may be confusing it with Sabotage, which, I am assured, is a common mistake and don’t feel at all inadequate admitting. Ahem. As the film begins, there isn’t a whole lot about Saboteur that marks it as a Hitchcock production. There are extended explorations of paranoia and the wrongfully accused central protagonist (played here by sub-James Stewart pretty boy, Robert Cummings), even sequences that were replayed in subsequent Hitchcock movies (it often feels like a dry run for North By Northwest), but Saboteur plays out largely without the dark undercurrents or wry humour already seen in The Lady Vanishes and Rebecca (the billboards that seem to speak to the characters are quite funny). Then Priscilla Lane enters the picture, another quintessential Hitchcock blonde, and, with his leading pair set, the director properly gathers his druthers. Within minutes, the fugitives are hitching a ride with circus freaks and Cummings is having a discussion with the one of the chief villains about the validity of letting little boys grow out their hair to look like little girls. The screenplay features some occasionally stiff dialogue (all stylistically consistent with the era), but unravels with such precision that it’s difficult to care. The sheer quantity of plot also covers up some of the lesser performances and empty character motivations. In lieu of standout set pieces are heavy-handed political themes that leap far beyond subtext into the realms of preaching to the choir. This should sink any of the drama, but is a surprisingly charming cultural artefact ( Saboteur starting shooting mere weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombing).

Saboteur is presented in black and white, 1.33:1 fullframe (slightly reframed from the Academy standard 1.37:1) in uncompressed 1080p HD video. This isn’t the greatest transfer and not the best foot to start things off on, but marking it as average isn’t the same as writing it off. It does have its advantages and is clearly a step beyond DVD capabilities (as apparent by the SD footage on the special features) – it just doesn’t appear that Universal put a lot of money into re-mastering it. The movie opens with black titles against a building with harshly shaded vertical slats. These kick off a series of shimmering effects that hopscotch across the transfer. Most of this seems to be the unavoidable side effect of 35mm film grain, but some of the grain appears to be the result of CRT scanning. Detail levels are somewhat inconsistent, usually the result of softer focus rather than shortcomings in compression. Edge enhancement effects are reserved for only a few wide, establishing shots, most of which feature some kind of process effect or a matte painting. There are some shots that display notable print damage, including the usual flecks of dirt, some scratches and scanning lines, and some chemical damage. These appear to have been scrubbed without overwhelming the image with DNR effects, leaving grain levels pretty natural aside from a few clumpier sequences. Black levels are appropriately rich and contrast levels appear accurate.

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is, on the other hand, outstanding from the onset, including rich, full, musical score and natural dialogue. The sound floor is set plenty low and there isn’t a lot of aural downtime throughout the film. Most of the runtime features at least a hum of background ambience, such as rain or dance music playing from outside the room. There’s less high volume distortion and vocal hiss here than found on well-preserved films half Saboteur’s age, and nothing in terms of outstanding cracks in consistency. Frank Skinner’s theatrical and relatively eclectic score is often mixed low on the track, but, when given its proper reign, is brassy without risking bass. The music also has a surprisingly deep sound field considering the single channel origin.

Extras include:
  • Saboteur: A Closer Look retrospective featurette (35:20, SD)
  • A storyboard gallery
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s sketches gallery
  • Production photos gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer


 Saboteur Blu-ray
 Saboteur DVD
 Saboteur Blu-ray
 Saboteur DVD
 Saboteur Blu-ray
 Saboteur DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 1

Shadow of a Doubt


Hitchcock’s second film for Universal is another I’ve seen so long ago that I barely recall the specifics of its plot or imagery. All the better for me, since this noir-meets-Americana melodrama entry in the director’s canon takes a consistent and unique approach to familiar tropes. There’s a reason Shadow of a Doubt is considered by many critics to be one of the director’s best, though I suspect that famous filmmakers that list it as their favourite Hitchcock production are more concerned with picking one of the comparatively underseen films (this includes Hitch himself, who was likely sad the film was a comparative flop upon release). It’s certainly not as perfect as Rear Window or Psycho. Problems arise early due to some misfires in melodramatic family dynamics, most of which are relatively extraneous. Watching these films in release order (following the Fox/MGM’s three ‘40s era Hitchcock Blu-ray releases earlier this year), it’s apparent that the tight editing that defines Hitch’s best films was a process that took time and practice to refine. But the film settles into a narrative groove soon enough and Hitch uses his smaller-scale locations and repeating visual motifs to create an understated dream state that emphasizes the devolving character relationships. The tonal ambiguity is genuinely unsettling as the mystery is unveiled and this time Hitchcock leaves the thematic subtext where it belongs, abandoning the relatively traditional production open to some interesting interpretations. The Oscar nominated (for Best Original Story) screenplay is brimming with implied pedophilia and incest, moral subversions (though it is never in question that the villain is a villain), and bizarre, esoteric, doppelganger fixations. Gallows humour isn’t exactly interlaced with the story, but there is a series of side gags that feature Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers lightheartedly discussing hypothetical ways to kill each other, which certainly fits the Hitchcock mould. The period-appropriate performances are still a bit stiff (Hitch worked with the same actors over and over for a reason, after all), but Joseph Cotten is his usual enigmatic self and the aforementioned Cronyn and Travers mostly hold their own.

Shadow of a Doubt is also presented in slightly cropped 1.33:1 fullframe, 1080p black and white. The image here is pretty similar to the Saboteur transfer, including a bit of grain clumping, inconsistencies in overall details (which can probably also be attributed to photographic choices during filming), and print artefacts. Again, there’s more print damage here than I’ve come to expect from these kinds of releases and suspect that the studio put a whole lot more effort into the most popular films. This transfer features prominent scratches in particular. Much of the print damage artefacts apply to the first 15 minutes or so, though there’s a not-to-expertly-obscured streak down the center of the screen a little before the 30-minute mark. Some of the fade-outs and a few obvious reel changeovers are a bit murky as well, but edge enhancement is not an issue this time around, even for expansive, wide-angle images. There’s not a lot of background detail, but tonal differentiations are clear enough to keep the image from appearing muddy. Black levels are plenty deep and the overall contrast levels again appear accurate, though there’s a bit more of a shutter effect here that shows most extensively in the whitest highlights.

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track impresses just as much as the Saboteur track. Once more it is the musical score, this time composed mostly by Dimitri Tiomkin (with some help from non-original Franz Lehár compositions), that is the main attraction. The score is hyper-melodramatic and string-heavy without losing the more intricate instrumentations. Bass representations are a little thin, but there’s still quite a bit of aural depth and very little distortion on the higher end. The music has a less consistent influence this time around and there are fewer ambient effects, leaving more blank space to be filled with low-level fuzz. Vocals are again quite natural for a film this old with only a hint of hiss and the minimal effects remain crisp.

Extras include:
  • Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film retrospective featurette (34:50, SD)
  • Production drawings gallery featuring art by Robert Boyle
  • Production photos gallery
  • Theatrical trailer


 Shadow of a Doubt Blu-ray
 Shadow of a Doubt DVD
 Shadow of a Doubt Blu-ray
 Shadow of a Doubt DVD
 Shadow of a Doubt Blu-ray
 Shadow of a Doubt DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 1

Rope


Following Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock went back to work with producer David O. Selznick. Then, after four contentious collaborations, he found his way to Warner Bros to shoot a high-concept thriller based on Patrick Hamilton’s popular play, Rope (which itself was based on a real murder case). The gimmick employed here is a series of long takes craftily strung together to create the illusion of one mostly unbroken shot. The stage play basis works both for and against the film. The dialogue is steadily snappy, presses the story forward and defines the characters, as it would in a stage performance, but the solitary location (not a rarity in the canon, I suppose), and pseudo-real-time momentum doesn’t allow for a particularly theatrical experience, despite the incredible difficulty of the long-take gimmick. Minus the acrobatic camera abilities afforded to modern filmmakers (or even Orson Welles, whose bravado Touch of Evil opening became an industry standard in 1958), Rope doesn’t immediately stand out as an impressive fete. If the camera didn’t wobble during push-ins and dolly shots (which was mostly unavoidable at the time), the entire film would squeak by without anyone noticing Hitchcock and his cast & crew even pulling the magic trick off. This is sort of the point of the exercise, I suppose, and the spellbinding narrative stealing focus from the mechanics of the filmmaking is certainly an ideal situation for the material. I’m left with the rather daft issue of thinking material as strong as Rope could’ve been just as well-served by a less iconic director, and that the film is less Hitchcock’s victory than the victory of the writers and actors. This is definitely the first film in the collection with a truly outstanding ensemble, including the first of four collaborations between the director and Jimmy Stewart. The idea that the homosexual subtext (which screenwriter Arthur Laurents claims was somewhat tempered by Stewart’s performance) was ever overlooked is amusing, given modern sensibilities, but I’m more surprised the censors wouldn’t balk at the gruesome basics inherent in the plot, where murder is morbidly referred to as a ‘work of art.’ The story is also ahead of its time in exploring Nietzschian and Freudian philosophy before Hollywood releases were really all that comfortable with philosophy, whatsoever.

Rope was Hitchcock’s first colour film and, more importantly for the sake of its first high definition release, it was shot on three-strip Technicolor. This transfer, presented in 1.33:1, is strong, but isn’t an earth-shattering upgrade over DVD releases. The main issues relate to blooming effects and moderate details, both of which appear to be representative of the source material’s intended look. Hitch and cinematographers Joseph A. Valentine and William V. Skall don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with taking full advantage of Technicolor’s capabilities, because they don’t take an effort to fill out the frame with a lot of chromatic variety until the climax, where blinking neon lights flood the apartment and create contrasting highlights. The usual Technicolor artefacts apply, including slight issues with misalignment (the red strip is the culprit here, sometime around the one-hour mark), but the colours are well separated (aside from the occasional blooming effects) and the stronger hues are rich, even poppy when required. There might be more grain on this print than some viewers will be comfortable with, but the frequency and size of the grain appears natural to me, save maybe a hair of telecine noise. Print artefacts are limited to some minor white flecks peppered throughout the transfer.

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is low impact, but fulfills all of its proper expectations. The closest to problems we get here is a slightly muffled quality that springs up every once in a while if you’re listening really closely. I also suppose I had to turn this one up a little louder than some of the other films in the collection. In lieu of busy effects and ambience, the film’s dialogue is treated with a slightly musical touch and given a basic sense of depth within the single channel treatment. The natural sound of the off-screen dialogue is particularly sharp. The music, by Leo F. Forbstein, David Buttolph, and Francis Poulenc, is left on the sidelines for large swaths of runtime, making it much less of a factor here. However, when it is present, whether in the form of score or some sort of screen source (usually a piano), is plenty rich without any high-end distortion.

Extras include:
  • Rope Unleashed retrospective featurette (32:30, SD)
  • Production photo gallery
  • Theatrical trailer


 Rope Blu-ray
 Rope DVD
 Rope Blu-ray
 Rope DVD
 Rope Blu-ray
 Rope DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 1

Rear Window


I always tell myself that Vertigo is my favourite Hitchcock film and that Psycho is the one I’m most ready to watch at the drop of the hat, but it’s time that I admit that Rear Window is really ground zero for everything Hitchcock. At the very least it is his most entertaining film within a very entertaining catalogue. If you’re going to satire/spoof ( The Simpsons), pay homage to ( Body Double), and/or plan to rip-off ( Disturbia) the master Rear Window is probably the place to start. There is simply so much to absorb here, from the script’s captivating, nerve-jangling text, to the visual stories told through the neighbourhood windows, and the endlessly fascinating subtext of James Stewart and Grace Kelly’s relationship as played out by them and the people surrounding them (because, in the end, this is a movie about coming to terms with marriage). It’s possible that Rear Window is the most studiously and meticulously structured motion picture ever made, but you’d never know by watching it.

Rear Window is the second colour Hitchcock film in this collection (this time printed on Eastman Color, rather than Technicolor) and the first presented in widescreen. This 1080p transfer appears to be appropriately framed at 1.66:1 – I don’t see any missing or new information on the top, bottom, or sides when comparing it side-by-side to the original Universal DVD release. Rear Window is also the only film in this collection I’ve seen projected in 35mm, though way back in 1999 when it was had a limited theatrical re-release. The print I saw was re-mastered by all-star preservationists Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who were also used for the 2000 DVD release. I assume that print was the basis for this release, but definitely see changes in the colours. This release gets a wonderful vibrancy bounce through the virtue of being HD, but also features small differences in warmer reds, more lavender blues, and more natural skin tones (I definitely recall some less attractive, brown skin tones on the 35mm projection). All colours are much more tightly separated, especially the lush greens of outdoor gardens and flowerbeds. There’s a bit of red bleeding throughout, which occasionally appears to be the result of misaligned colour strips, but little-to-none of the edge enhancement seen on the DVD. Details are largely improved from SD releases, including crisp lines on the busier wide shots, sharper divisions in complex patterns, and much more realistic element textures. The film grain is mostly consistent and natural. DNR enhancement has been utilized to even things out, but the producers use kids gloves, instead of hobnail boots. Some shots are softer than expected (it’s hard to judge, since Hitch loved shooting Kelly with soft focus), but nothing ever appears waxy. The special features footage, which was taken from the ’99 re-master, also reveals some print damage artefacts that do not appear on this 1080p transfer.

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack isn’t really any different from the Masterpiece Collection release’s Dolby Digital mono track, aside from the obvious boost afforded by the uncompressed quality of an HD release. What’s important here is the immersive and natural qualities of the busy track, which is constantly buzzing with the incidental noise of the world outside of Jimmy Stewart’s window. The sound design is so delicately balanced that it would be a shame to mess it up with unnecessary stereo and surround enhancements. Even without the additional channels, this is a naturally immersive track with crisp, sharply divided dialogue and sound effects. Rear Window famously features very little score, outside the opening titles, by Franz Waxman (some of it appropriated from other films), and what plays through the radios and pianos of the various apartment buildings. The screen-based music is lumped in with the other effects and dialogue, where it gets a relatively soft treatment, but the brief score bits are boisterous without major distortion.

Extras include:
  • Audio commentary with John Fawell, author of Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film
  • Rear Window Ethics: Remembering and Restoring a Hitchcock Classic retrospective featurette (55:10, SD)
  • A conversation with screenwriter John Michael Hayes (13:10, SD)
  • Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of the Master (25:10, SD), a featurette on the director’s filmmaking ideals featuring interviews with current filmmakers
  • Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock[/I] (23:30, SD), a look at sound design throughout the director’s films with most of the same interviewees
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut (16:10, SD), an audio recording of Francois Truffaut interviewing the director set to footage from the film
  • An episode of Masters of Cinema (33:40, SD)
  • Production art/photo gallery
  • Original and re-release trailers


 Rear Window Blu-ray
 Rear Window DVD
 Rear Window Blu-ray
 Rear Window DVD
 Rear Window Blu-ray
 Rear Window DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 1

The Trouble with Harry


One of Hitchcock’s only straight comedies, The Trouble with Harry is another film in this set I haven’t seen since I was a child (with my grandfather, who I always thought looked and talked a bit like Edmund Gwenn does here, minus the British accent). I understand why it isn’t normally included in conversations about the master’s best – it’s so dry, dark, and low key that the comedy doesn’t translate as smoothly as one would hope. There’s also the matter of expectations and years of thrillers freckled with gallows humour conditioning that left most of us to expect specific things from the Master of Suspense. I admit, I find the change in flavour troubling at times, but separated from my expectations, I still enjoy The Trouble with Harry as a ‘lesser’ entry in the director’s canon. The film’s biggest problems are a shaky story focus and a series of characters that take too long to properly care about. But this detached quality appears to be part of Hitchcock’s comedic design, where the dialogue is funniest at its most aloof and the performances never rise in fury above a raise of an eyebrow. Even those that don’t enjoy Hitch’s brand of ‘true’ comedy can likely appreciate the film’s handsome, colourful imagery (much of it expertly recreated on Paramount stages, not shot on location) and a short list of ‘firsts,’ including the director’s first collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann, and the first feature film appearance of Shirley MacLaine (whose character may be the most cryptically complex in the film) and Jerry Mathers (otherwise known as Beaver Clever, who is given all the best one-liners).

The Trouble with Harry is the second of five movies Hitchcock shot using the VistaVision process ( To Catch a Thief being the first), which is presented here in 1080p and the intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It is also another Technicolor release and I believe it was included as part of Harris & Katz’ late-‘90s re-mastering orgy. Right off the bat, this transfer is an early frontrunner for the best-looking film in the set with stunning, rolling vistas (no pun intended) covered in lush fall colours and extremely complex tree and shrubbery details. The colourful variety of the backgrounds rarely lets up as the film progresses either, making for a Disney-level Technicolor experience. These hues are uniformly vibrant, tightly cut without major bleeding or blooming, and feature little noticeable noise along contrasting edges. Grain levels are consistent enough to imply a light touch in terms of digital tampering, but are also so fine that they act only to add the usual texture. The fine details and intricate textures of skin, hair, and clothing feature none of usual side effects of DNR enhancement, and elements are crisply separated without much in the way of sharpening effects, save some minor moiré shimmer. The only (possibly) avoidable problems I’m seeing here are a skipped frame or two (I noticed one distinctly towards the beginning of the film), and some weird doubling effects in some of the backgrounds that are either some kind of anamorphic lens issue or a CRT scanning artefact. Print damage is limited to a light peppering of white flecks.

This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack follows suit and is so rich that it could easily be confused with a stereo treatment any time the music gets booming. As stated above, The Trouble with Harry marks the first of many advantageous collaborations between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. This score isn’t as ingrained in the pop culture as the Psycho or Vertigo scores, but it also has a historical place beyond simply being the first of the collaborations. The music feels wide without sacrificing clarity here and features more bass punch than expected. The outdoor setting offers a chance for some basic natural ambience behind the music-less sequences, though nothing compared to the ongoing murmur of Rear Window. Dialogue is clean and neat with only minor volume issues when the music plays under the talking.

Extras include:
  • The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over retrospective featurette (32:30, SD)
  • Production photo gallery
  • Theatrical trailer


 The Trouble with Harry Blu-ray
 The Trouble with Harry DVD
 The Trouble with Harry Blu-ray
 The Trouble with Harry DVD
 The Trouble with Harry Blu-ray
 The Trouble with Harry DVD

I will see you next time for men who know too much, suffer a fear of heights, and psychosis, and flocks of malevolent birds.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and original DVD releases, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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