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Nothing in this world makes me feel more guilty than realizing I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen a classic film or not. Seriously, even getting back from vacation and realizing I forgot to feed the cat doesn’t bring about deeper shame. The fact that the films in question here are some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated, just makes the sting a tad sharper. Fox/MGM have sent over Blu-ray versions of Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious, all films I think I’ve already seen…but I’m not sure I haven’t just seen highlight clips from them thanks to the dozens of documentaries on Hitchcock’s output. The good news, if there is any, is that I’m watching all three films with relatively new eyes, but with the proper context, so even though these are going to be shorter capsule reviews I might have something somewhat interesting to say. The best news, which doesn’t relate to my writing at all, is that unlike so many of these Fox/MGM catalogue Blu-ray releases, these three discs are swimming with potent extra features. This isn’t the biggest of deals, as most of these extras were already made available with MGM’s Premiere Collection DVD releases, and those of you that own the Criterion versions can rest assure you still have some unique extras at your disposal, but considering the precedent set over the last year I’m still considering it a victory.

MGM Hitchcock Wrap-Up

Rebecca


Rebecca stands apart from Hitchcock’s series of films because it is the only one of many, many classics to ever win the Academy Award for best picture. Hitch didn’t win best director, and it’s possible that super-producer David O. Selznick’s influence is what won the award in the long run ( Rebecca was actually held back a year so as to not compete with Gone with the Wind for the Oscars), but the solitary Oscar still marks something special in an especially special canon. Looking on the film with practically new eyes, I’m mostly stricken by its unabashed gothic look. Hitchcock’s use of miniatures, harsh shadows, and soupy fog is akin to Tod Browning or James Whale’s work with Universal horror work, and yet never inappropriate for the sequence. Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s most beautiful works are still the more brazen expressions of gothic sensibilities, but Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes don’t shy away from stylistic extremes. Coming off of Gone with the Wind, Selznick’s influence dictated that the epic scope of Daphne du Maurier’s original book be maintained. The quantity of story weighs the film down heavily up front, where we’re privy to the building of a romantic relationship that makes so little sense it would be more interesting left as an enigma. The plot doesn’t really hit its stride until our heroine is first introduced to Mandalay and Mrs. Danvers. Here Judith Anderson’s icy performance and Barnes’ evocative photography etch true malice into the fabric of the film, and send the story on its way. Hitchcock weaves a twisted perversion into story (or as much as could make it past the Production Code). There are some obvious parallels to be drawn between Rebecca and Vertigo (Maxim is sometimes a mirror opposite of Scottie, struggling in vain not to repeat his previous relationship, and there’s a palpable sense of the original Mrs. Danvers haunting her replacement), along with clever references to homosexuality and some brilliantly dry humour. Still, there is a prevailing sense of Hitch censoring himself throughout the production.

Rebecca is the oldest of the films I’m covering here, and generally speaking it looks its age. The 1.33:1 framing and black and white image are, of course, the intended look, but both leave me with little to say about the transfer itself. The edgy, thick, gothic fog, soft focus and use of 1940s special effects don’t help the clarity either, but overall I see nothing here that can be blamed on the disc’s producers. The black levels are rich and deep, whites are reasonably clean, and foreground details are quite sharp with practically no sign of edge enhancement. The grey blends show some minor damage, but grain levels are quite consistent. The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono soundtrack is also as good as can be excepted, sounding generally clear enough to discern, but suffering basic issues with muffled dialogue, thin music, and flat effects. Hitch wasn’t playing with sound effects too much just yet, and Franz Waxman is no Bernard Herrmann, but there’s a bit of awe throughout the soundtrack, especially during the sequence where Mrs. Danvers fetishistically shows off the dead Mrs. De Winter’s room, and the music effortlessly turns from feverishly romantic to dreadful and threatening. The extras include a commentary with film critic Richard Schickel, and isolated music track, The Making of Rebecca (28:10, SD), The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier (19:20, SD), two screen tests (9:10, SD), three radio plays (59:40, 58:30, 60:20), a Hitchcock audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich (4:20), a Hitchcock audio interview with Francois Truffaut (9:20), and a trailer.


MGM Hitchcock Wrap-Up

Spellbound


Spellbound apparently marks a time when Selznick and Hitchcock’s relationship officially broke down, and the tension between them sparks something more aggressive and dark than the already haunting Rebecca. Rumour has it the severity of the tone came out of Hitchcock’s frustration, and it could be argued that Spellbound is more loosely directed than most of Hitch’s most popular productions, but the rust and angst creates the appropriate sense of barely controlled chaos. Spellbound is brimming with sexual energy. Almost every male character seethes with unbridled desire for Ingrid Bergman’s proto-‘sexy librarian’, and Bergman herself practically explodes in orgasm when she first sees Gregory Peck’s angelic face. Watching these films back to back it’s interesting to note not only their commonalities, but their differences. Spellbound feels more like a Hitchcock feature, toeing the line between exploitation and prestige, cracking with tactile sensation and potent visual metaphors. As the film progresses, it begins to fit the known Hitchcock mould a bit tighter, as suspense and paranoia are steadily shoveled onto the psychologically damaged protagonists. Hitchcock’s preferred themes start to spring more to the forefront, as Peck begins to unwind and Bergman obsessively tries to figure him out. Once again there are shades of Vertigo here, which isn’t surprising given that film’s focus on phobia and obsessive mentality. At times the psychobabble overruns the plot, but unabated, brazen performances help to tether the film to something more concrete and palatable. Spellbound is best known for the surrealist dream recall sequence designed by Salvador Dali. The sequence, which apparently Hitch himself had little to do with, is quite dramatic and impressive, but isn’t as powerful the less surreal ‘memories’, especially his ‘breakthrough’ moment.

Spellbound follows Rebecca’s lead in the video department, it’s also 1.33:1, black and white (minus a few red frames at the end) and 1080p, but is generally rougher overall. Some of this can be blamed on the slightly less extreme look, but I also doubt Hitchcock and Barnes intended the image to be quite this soft (it’s hard to say, of course, as some sequences are clearly meant to have a surreal glow). The print also shows more grain, and features more in the way of print damage artifacts, including occasional scratches, tracking lines, and a pretty consistent jitter. The edges and details are rarely sharp beyond what I assume a DVD could manage, but aside from some very minor haloes, digital compression is never a problem. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono soundtrack is also a slight step down from the Rebecca disc, at least in terms of dialogue clarity. I was forced to turn this disc up to much higher volume levels, and still had problems discerning some of conversations. Eventually I gave up and turned on the subtitles. Apparently Selznick and Hitchcock originally pursued Bernard Herrmann to do Spellbound’s score, which features the composer’s favourite electronic instrument, the Theremin, but had to settle for Miklós Rózsa, who ended up winning an Oscar. The score sounds pretty good on the track, but is still relatively garbled at high volumes. The extras here include a commentary featuring author/professors Thomas Schatz and Ramirez Berg, Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali (20:20, SD), Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing Spellbound (19:40, SD), A Cinderella Story: Rhonda Flaming (10:10, SD), a 1948 radio play (59:50), more of the Peter Bogdanovich interview with Hitchcock (15:20), and a trailer.


MGM Hitchcock Wrap-Up

Notorious


Notorious was culled from the fallout between Hitchcock and Selznick, and the result sees Hitch (who got his first producer’s credit here) moving onto a more stereotypically Hitchcockian route. At the very least, this is the most buoyant of the three films, and generally the most briskly moving. This isn’t particularly surprising given Cary Grant’s participation. Grant’s personality is a heavy influence here, unlike Peck or Robert Sherwood, who appear more like pawns on the director’s chessboard. He and Ingrid Bergman display more believable chemistry than Bergman ever had with Peck, and rumour has it that Bergman had strong enough opinions on her character that Hitchcock decided to collaborate actually with the actress. There is utter darkness in both lead characters and this darkness festers as the film progresses, but I find them often more easily defined by their banter and romance than their brimming angst. In true Hitchcock tradition, there is an excess of provocative subtext (the sexual politics are enough to write an entire book about), and unhindered by Selznick’s aesthetics, Hitch appears to be more willing to have fun with the medium. I assume it’s generally agreed upon that Notorious is the obvious wind-up for North by Northwest, but once again, I see shadows of Vertigo in the damaged romantic relationships, and cannot overlook the presence of an evil mother character, or an obvious MacGuffin, both future Hitchcock trademarks. This is the leanest of the three scripts as well, despite a greater quantity of actual plot to plough through. There isn’t a single unneeded frame in the entire film. In fact, the opposite argument could be made for a couple of sequences, which zip by rather too efficiently. The camera work here is less gothic or surrealist, and more of what I’d consider a modern look. Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff aren’t afraid to move the camera around a lot, and utilize the kind of subjective images and sweeping tracking shots that would be ripped-off by generations of filmmakers like Dario Argento and Brian DePalma for decades.

Notorious is also presented in the original, black and white 1.33:1 framing, and is easily the roughest looking of the three films, which is unfortunate and unexpected, considering it’s the newest and most expensive of the bunch and that MGM was proud enough to include an extra feature comparing the before and after of their restoration. Black and white levels are rather pure, but clash along edges, and gradients are too often blown-out and lost. Detail levels are, again, not much sharper than standard definition can manage, and some viewers may be put off by the manner the grain detail is sharpened in 1080p. The consistency of the image quality is definitely a problem, leading me to assume some reels were sizably more biffed up than others. Night scenes (most of which are pretty obviously set on stages) are quite thick with grain and show the most print damage, usually in the form of blotches and dirt. Still, from what I see in terms of DVD screen caps this is still a reasonable upgrade over previously releases, which feature a little more in the way of digital compression. This is the best sounding of the three discs, featuring yet another DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix. The dialogue track is clean and relatively natural. There was no point during the film I considered turning on the subtitles this time. Group dialogue features a hint of scratch and buzz, but generally noise reduction processes work well. Roy Webb’s (who Hitchcock snagged from Val Lewton’s horror machine) score starts off a little generic, but turns into something truly gorgeous, and sounds warm and rich, with better bass levels than the other two discs. Extras include a commentary with professor Rick Jewell, a commentary with professor Dew Casper, an isolated music and effects track, Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious (28:20, SD), Alfred Hitchock: The Ultimate Spymaster (SD), The American Film Institute Award: The Key to Hitchcock (3:20, SD), a 1948 radio play (59:40), more Bogdanovich and Truffaut interviews (2:20, 16:20), restoration comparisons (2:50, SD), and a trailer.


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