- by Jeff Beck
The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection: A Stunning Set of Some of the Maestro's Most Beloved Works
Sir Alfred Hitchcock, "The Master of Suspense." What can be said of the brilliant auteur that hasn't already been said? Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors of all time, delivering a plethora of fantastic films, many of which are considered among the greatest of all time, and which have gone on to inspire many, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. To celebrate the Maestro's work, Universal has put together a set of some of his most cherished films, presenting them in both 4K UltraHD and regular Blu-ray, so without further delay, let's jump right into this mini Hitchcock marathon.
Let's kick things off with "Vertigo" (1958), often considered by many to be one of Hitchcock's very best, and which was actually named the greatest film ever made in the prestigious Sight & Sound poll conducted in 2012. The film concerns John Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who has recently left his job as a police detective due to his fear of heights. He is contacted by an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who hires him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). However, it's not out of fear of infidelity, but rather because he believes that she has been taken over by someone else, someone who died long ago. Despite not believing it himself, John agrees to the job, eventually finding that it could be true, and also that he just might be in love with her.
This may be an extremely controversial statement, but I've never found "Vertigo" to be one of Hitchcock's best films. There is an intriguing mystery at its heart, and it does keep the film going for the majority of its 128 minutes, as do the fine performances from Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, but the narrative is so wrapped up in melodrama that it threatens to derail the entire endeavor on multiple occasions. That said, it is one of Hitchcock's more artfully-crafted films, featuring a vivid and gorgeous use of colors and cinematography, which compliments the brooding, haunting nature of the film. It just makes you wish that the execution of the narrative had been done with a little more focus, and in a slightly less sappy manner. That's not even to mention the surprisingly abrupt (and almost laughable) final few seconds of the film, which has never come off well. On the whole, I remain on the fence thanks to the remarkable craft that went into it and its mostly-engaging mystery, but it does have some very clear issues, which ultimately makes it a somewhat perplexing choice for the best film ever made.
Next up, we have "Rear Window" (1954), which tells of a magazine photographer, Jeff (Jimmy Stewart), who broke his leg during an assignment and has been recuperating for several weeks in his apartment. Aside from annual visits from his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), he passes the time observing his neighbors from his window, including a dancer, a young married couple, a sculptor, a composer, and a jewelry salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), whose wife has been ill recently. One night, he begins to notice some very strange behavior from Thorwald, including seeing him leave his apartment several times during the night with a suitcase. Then there's the sudden disappearance of his wife, whose handbag and jewelry are still there. All this and more make him believe that he must have done something to her, eventually leading him to get Lisa, Stella, and a detective (Wendell Corey) involved. Has a murder really taken place, or is Jeff's imagination just running wild?
"Rear Window," another one of Hitch's most popular titles, is considered one of the most voyeuristic films ever made, and for good reason. Taking place entirely in one location (though its somewhat cheating, as we're seeing multiple locations from the one location), the film is basically the cinematic equivalent of flipping channels on television as Jeff peeps from one apartment to the next. As mentioned, this is broken up every now and again by other characters popping in to have what start off as somewhat mundane conversations (revolving around settling down, marriage, etc.), but when the film does finally get going a little over 30 minutes in, the trademark Hitchcock suspense takes off. From here on, the film is most successful when it's focusing on Jeff and company's attempts to ascertain what Thorwald has done with his wife and acquiring proof of any wrongdoing. It does stray from this every now and again, but for the most part, Hitch keeps you exactly where he wants you: in that one tiny apartment, and on the edge of your seat, continually questioning whether you think a murder has taken place or not, and ultimately leading to a fine thriller.
Moving on to "The Birds" (1963), the film begins with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) running into Mitch Brennan (Rod Taylor) at a pet store as the latter is looking for a pair of lovebirds for his sister Cathy's birthday. Mitch, a lawyer, recognizes her from an incident that brought her to court, and after playfully pretending to mistake Melanie for an employee at the store, he leaves without acquiring the birds. A bit smitten, Melanie decides to buy the birds for him, and after driving all the way to a small coastal town outside of the city, surprises him with them. While there, several strange incidents involving randomly attacking birds begin to occur, including during Cathy's birthday party and while trying to get the children safely home from school. As the attacks continue to escalate, Melanie, Mitch, and his family are forced to barricade themselves inside their house in hopes of surviving the inexplicable barrage of vicious birds.
Over the many times I've seen "The Birds," it's always one that I've felt is a bit of a dark comedy in that the idea of having birds randomly attacking is a bit of a silly one, though I suppose it's no more silly than having, say, squirrels suddenly going crazy and becoming vicious. Because of this, it's not that big a surprise to learn that Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter borrowed some elements from the screwball comedy genre when they were putting the project together, with the idea being that it would start off as something of a comedy and eventually turn into pure terror, with "eventually" being something of a keyword here in that this is another Hitch outing that takes a while to get going, except here it's nearly half the runtime before the main plot kicks into action. I wouldn't say that it's ever been one of my favorites from the master director, mainly thanks to its pacing issues that make the film feel rather stretched at two hours and the somewhat uninteresting characters, but it does manage to provide a few good moments of suspense, especially during the prolonged attacks that the main characters and townspeople have to endure. Like "Vertigo," it has an interesting tale at its core, and the film is most successful when it's focusing on it, but it also has a few issues holding it back from being as good as it could be, ultimately making this another somewhat middling entry in Hitchcock's filmography.
Saving the best for last, we finally come to the infamous "Psycho" (1960), which tells the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who decides to steal $40,000 from her employer and run off to be with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). On the way to surprise him, she stops off at a little out-of-the-way hotel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a peculiar man who lives with his overbearing mother in the house right behind the establishment. The lonely Norman becomes a little taken with her, a notion that his mother strongly objects to, leading to the most dire of consequences. What follows is a bizarre mystery that must be pieced together by Sam, Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles), and a private investigator (Martin Balsam).
Without a doubt, "Psycho" has always been Hitchcock's ultimate achievement. It's not only one of the greatest horror films ever made (some would say THE greatest), but also a masterpiece of cinema. It's one of those rare instances of the perfect director coming together with the perfect screenplay (by Joseph Stefano, adapted from the Robert Bloch novel) and the perfect cast to create something that, even 60 years later, still stands the test of time as one of the most startling entries in the genre. It's basically the grandfather of slasher films, with "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" owing it much for creating a subgenre that, to this day, remains immensely popular.
But why has it remained one of the most highly-acclaimed horror films of all time? Pretty much for the reasons listed above: Hitchcock's Oscar-nominated direction here shows his mastery of the medium in every frame, while Stefano's screenplay brilliantly unfolds this dark tale. Meanwhile, Anthony Perkins' unforgettable performance provides much of the film's unease, jumping between light-hearted friend and his darker side. Yet it was Janet Leigh who earned an Oscar nod (and a Golden Globe win) for her portrayal of Marion Crane, infusing the character with impulsiveness and urgency, which ultimately leads her to one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Everything ultimately combines into a masterfully-crafted film that broke new ground in 1960 and continues to stun audiences all these years later. Others may point to the three other films in this set, or others besides, as Hitchcock's greatest work, but seeing "Psycho" again for what must have been around the dozenth time or so, it seems as clear as ever that it remains his magnum opus.
Special Note: "Psycho" comes with the option to watch the new "uncut" version that includes about a minute of footage not seen since the '60s, during which it was cut when the ratings system came into effect.
This collection comes with all four films on separate 4K and Blu-ray discs, with the former presented in 2160p UHD HDR10 transfers and the latter presented in 1080p High Definition transfers ("Rear Window" is presented in 1.66:1, while the other three features are presented in 1.85:1). Right off the bat, it's easy to say that it's doubtful that these films have ever looked better. Every detail of these classics is crystal clear, giving you the opportunity to truly appreciate the great artistry that Hitchcock and his crew put into them. The colors of "Vertigo," "Rear Window," and "The Birds" are vibrant and striking, while the monochromatic "Psycho" looks amazingly crisp.
On the audio side, we have a mix of tracks, with "Rear Window" and "The Birds" featuring 2.0 DTS Master Audio tracks for both 4K and Blu-ray, while "Vertigo" features DTS:X/5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks and "Psycho" features DTS:X tracks. For the most part, the audio is simply stunning, with the scores by Bernard Hermann ("Psycho" and "Vertigo") and Franz Waxman ("Rear Window") coming through marvelously. The music-less "The Birds" obviously doesn't apply there, but the sound design was top-notch. The only slight audio problem was that the sound on the "Vertigo" Blu-ray seemed extremely soft, making it necessary to crank the volume up to maximum, but after the adjustment, it sounded perfect. For the other features, no adjustment was necessary as they were flawless as is.
Overall, Universal has done an outstanding job restoring these films for both formats. The one small audio peculiarity aside, these films look and sound fantastic, allowing you to experience all of the suspense in the best quality possible.
- Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock's Masterpiece - Partners In Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators a. Saul Bass: Title Champ b. Edith Head: Dressing the Master's Movies c. Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock's Maestro d. Alma: The Master's Muse - Foreign Censorship Ending - Hitchcock/Truffaut - In 1962, filmmaker François Truffaut, aided by his translator and associate, Helen G. Scott, spent numerous hours interviewing Alfred Hitchcock for his book, “Hitchcock.” The audio recording of those interviews provides the soundtrack to this montage of film clips and stills, giving audiences a deeper insight into one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces. - Feature Commentary with Film Director William Friedkin - Theatrical Trailer - Restoration Theatrical Trailer - 100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era Rear Window:
- Rear Window Ethics: An Original Documentary - A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes - Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of The Master - Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock - Hitchcock/Truffaut - In 1962, filmmaker François Truffaut, aided by his translator and associate, Helen G. Scott, spent numerous hours interviewing Alfred Hitchcock for his book, Hitchcock. The audio recording of those interviews provides the soundtrack to this montage of film clips and stills, giving audiences a deeper insight into one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces. - Masters of Cinema - Production Photographs - Theatrical Trailer - Re-release Trailer Narrated by James Stewart - Feature Commentary with John Fawell, Author of “Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film” The Birds:
- The Birds: Hitchcock's Monster Movie - All About The Birds - Tippi Hedren's Screen Test - Deleted Scene - The Original Ending - Hitchcock/Truffaut - In 1962, filmmaker François Truffaut, aided by his translator and associate, Helen G. Scott, spent numerous hours interviewing Alfred Hitchcock for his book, “Hitchcock.” Viewers can listen to excerpts from their discussion of The Birds. - The Birds is coming (Universal International Newsreel) - Suspense Story: National Press Club hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel) - Theatrical Trailer - 100 Years of Universal: Restoring The Classics - 100 Years of Universal: The Lot Psycho:
- The Making of Psycho - Psycho Sound - In The Master's Shadow: Hitchcock's Legacy - Hitchcock/Truffaut - In 1962, filmmaker François Truffaut, aided by his translator and associate, Helen G. Scott, spent numerous hours interviewing Alfred Hitchcock for his book, “Hitchcock”. The audio recording of those interviews provides the soundtrack to this montage of film clips and stills, giving audiences a deeper insight into one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces. - Newsreel Footage: The Release of Psycho - The Shower Scene: with and without Music - The Shower Sequence: Storyboards by Saul Bass - The Psycho Archives - Posters and Psycho Ads - Lobby Cards - Behind-the-Scenes Photographs - Production Photographs - Psycho Theatrical Trailers - Psycho Re-release Trailer - Feature Commentary with Stephen Rebello, author of "Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho"
For the special features, Universal has gone above and beyond , packing each film with a cornucopia of extras that include commentaries from experts, "Making ofs" documentaries, interviews, trailers, and photographs. To go into detail about all of them would take up quite a bit of space, but suffice it to say, there's plenty of material here for cinephiles to get lost in, as well as for those just looking to learn a little more about these classics. Conclusion: Taking the set as a whole, it's quite an extraordinary collection, presenting the films in tremendous quality and packing each one with a ton of informative special features. Given the opportunity, and if it were possible to mix different works from different studios, I would probably replace "Vertigo" and "The Birds" with superior Hitchcock projects like "North by Northwest," "The Lady Vanishes," or "Rope," but each of these films still remain solid examples of his brilliance as a director and why he'll forever be known as "The Master of Suspense," ultimately making this a definite worthwhile investment for fans.
Now available on 4K/Blu-ray.
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