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DVD Review - Alfred Hitchcock - The Masterpiece Collection

November 12th, 2005

There's not much that can be said about Alfred Hitchcock that hasn't already been said, he's one of the most famous and most popular directors of all time. And that would explain why there are so many box sets of his work released every year. The Masterpiece Collection contains 14 films from Alfred Hitchcock's career including such classics as Rear Window and Psycho, but does it stand out against other releases, or is it just one of the crowd.

Normally when I review a DVD release the heart of the review is divided into three categories: Spoiler-Free Synopsis, Movie Review, and Special Features. I do this because if someone wants to avoid spoilers they can, but others who want a more in-depth review can get that as well. However, with this release that is not really possible because there are 14 films in this set and either I need to do very short reviews for each film or the total length of the review would spiral out of control and take several months to write. So instead each movie will have a short synopsis, a short review, and brief description of the special features. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum, nothing more than what you'd learn from watching the trailer, but those that are present will be in white to avoid accidental exposure.

Now on to the movies:

Saboteur - 1942
Synopsis: Set during World War II, Saboteur stars Robert Cummings as Barry Kane, a worker in an aircraft factory who is mistaken for a saboteur. On the run, his only chance is to find the real saboteur and clear his name. But the conspiracy turns out to be larger than he first thought.
Review: A very early Alfred Hitchcock film, but in my mind it wasn't one of his best. He was still learning his craft but even so there are still some very Hitchcockian moments and the ending is visually spectacular.
Special Features: Saboteur: A Closer Look - a 34-minute long making of featurette; theatrical trailer; three image galleries, (storyboard, sketches, and production photos); and production notes.

Shadow of a Doubt - 1943: Synopsis: Charlie Newton is in a bit of a funk, but when her Uncle Charlie sends a telegram saying he is coming to visit, her whole demeanor seems to brighten up. But then when she begins to suspect Uncle Charlie might be hiding a secret, the bright times turn to terror.
Review: Like the previous film, this one deals with a common theme in Alfred Hitchcock film, namely terror coming to a small town and / or to an average family. I enjoyed this film much more than Saboteur, partially because it had a much better mix of humor and tension. For example, the strange hobby of Joseph Newton and his friend, Herbie Hawkins, who spend their time trying to come up with the perfect way of killing each other. This was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite film, and while I prefer some of the others on this set I would still rank it in the top third of his films.
Special Features: Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock's Favorite Film - a 34-minute long making of featurette, theatrical trailer, production drawings, production photographs, and production notes.

Rope - 1948
Synopsis: Brandon and Phillip plan the perfect dinner party for their friend David, the have the best food, champagne, a guest list that includes his parents and his fiancee, the only thing left to do is commit the perfect murder by strangling the guest of honor. They commit this act as an intellectual challenge, and as part of that, they can't just get rid of the body quietly, they have to host the dinner with his body hidden in a chest in the middle of the room.
Review: The third movie in the collection and the steady improvement in quality continues. As a movie Rope is excellent, but it even more impressive when one knows the technical details of making the movie. Not only is it Hitchcock's first film in color, it was conceived as one continues shot, however, cameras of the day could only hold 10-minutes of film so the film was actually 9 segments. Also, it's another perfect mixture of suspense and humor. A couple of other notes, firstly, the play the film is based on was inspired by the real life crime of Leopold and Loeb. And secondly, while it is never mentioned in the film, the characters of Brandon and Phillip, as well as their mentor Rupert were meant to be gay and to this day some consider the film one of the more objective treatments of the subject in a movie.
Special Features: Rope Unleashed - a 31-minute long making of featurette, theatrical trailer, production photographs, and production notes.

Rear Window - 1954
Synopsis: Photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries broke his leg trying to get the perfect photograph, now he has nothing to pass the time except spying on his neighbors through his camera lens. But when he starts to think one of his neighbors has murdered his wife he tries to convince his girlfriend, his nurse, his boss, anyone. But did a murder really happen, or is it just a product of his imagination and the heat.
Review: This is an absolute classic and arguably Alfred Hitchcock's best film. It also one of several film he made where the tension is increased because of the limited setting. Like Rope of Lifeboat, this film takes place in a very small environment and in the hands of a lesser director would have turned boring quickly, but Alfred Hitchcock was able to use the limited setting to enhance the tension.
Special Features: Rear Window Ethics: An Original Documentary - 54-minute long documentary on the movie and the restoration process, A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes - 12-minute long interview, theatrical trailer, re-release trailer, production photographs, and production notes.

The Trouble With Harry - 1955
Synopsis: The trouble with Harry is that he's dead and no one seems to know what to do with him. And no, that wasn't a spoiler. Over the course of the movie, more than half-a-dozen characters come into contact with the postmortem Harry, each reacting in a different way to the cadaver, and with each other.
Reviews: While Alfred Hitchcock has always added a bit of humor to his films, this is his only outright comedy, okay, it's a Black Comedy, but that's closer enough. The film didn't do well with the critics or audiences when it was first released, at least domestically because Americans were just not into Black Comedies, but it did very well in Europe. And since I have a more European sense of humor, I found myself enjoying the film a lot. It's not Hitchcock's best movie, but I might rank it in the top ten, or close to it. I particularly like the ensemble cast, especially Shirley MacLaine who delivers my favorite line in the whole movie, "Frankly, I don't are what you do with Harry, just as long as you don't bring him back to life."
Special Features: The Trouble With Harry Isn't Over - a 31-minute long making of featurette, theatrical trailer, production photographs, and production notes.

The Man Who Knew Too Much - 1956
Synopsis: A remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 film of the same name. James Stewart plays Dr. Ben McKenna and Doris Day plays his wife Jo McKenna. While on a family vacation to Africa with their child, they get mixed up in an assassination plot and their child is kidnapped to keep them quiet. But will they keep quiet, or will they do anything in their power to get their son back.
Review: Alfred Hitchcock reused several themes in many movies, and this film has two of them: mistaken identity and terror in the average family. Widely considered a classic, however, I don't consider the film to be as good as The Trouble With Harry. That is not to say it is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, it is a great movie that deserves repeated viewing, I just think its not one of Hitchcock's best films.
Special Features: The Making of the Man Who Knew Too Much - 33 minutes long, theatrical trailer, re-release trailer, production photographs, and production notes.

Vertigo - 1958
Synopsis: James Stewart plays John 'Scottie" Ferguson, a detective who's forced to retire from the police force after an attack of vertigo caused a fellow cop to fall to his death. One day a friend from college asks him to check in on his wife, who has been acting strange lately. He even has a theory, she's being possessed by Carlotta Valdez, a woman who killed herself after the father of her son kidnapped him and left her. Is there any truth to this, or is there something more to the story?
Reviews: The second of three films in this box set that are arguably the best of Alfred Hitchcock's career. And while I'd pick Rear Window or perhaps Psycho as his number one film, it's hard to argue against this one's inclusion in the top five.
Special Features: Audio commentary, Obsessed with Vertigo - 28-minute long feature on the movie and its restoration, alternate ending, theatrical trailer, re-release trailer, concept art, and production notes.

Psycho - 1960
Synopsis: One of the most famous movies of all time and I would be surprised if anyone here doesn't know the basic plot of the movie, or for that matter the surprise twist at the end. But for those who have never seen it... Marion Crane's life is not turning out the way she had hoped, she can't marry her boyfriend because they don't have enough money so she's stuck meeting him clandestinely in hotels. Then one day her boss asks her to deposit $40,000 in cash in a safety deposit box, but she sees this as an opportunity to start a new life. During her escape, she stays at the Bates Motel but after a conversation with the operator, she decides to return the money and face the consequences. But before she leaves she needs a shower and a good night's sleep.
Review: One of the greatest films in Alfred Hitchcock's career and arguably one of the greatest films of all time. There's not much more than needs to be added.
Special Features: Newreel Footage: The Release of Psycho - 7-minute long promotional footage from the original release of the film, shower scene: with and without music, theatrical trailer, re-release trailer, image gallery and production notes.
Note: Yes, that isn't much in the way of special features, but there's a feature-length documentary on the last disc of the set.

The Birds - 1963
Synopsis: This is one of the most famous films of Alfred Hitchcock's career, and is also one of the most unusual. It really doesn't have a plot. Early in the film Melanie Daniels meets Mitch Brenner and is the but of joke while he is shopping for a pair of lovebirds for his sister. In retaliation, or more precisely, flirtation, she buys the birds and heads off to his weekend home in the quiet coastal town of Bodega Bay. Shortly after arriving, she is attacked by a seagull, but is this a freak occurrence, or a portent of things to come?
Review: When this film was first released it was not as well received as some of Hitchcock's other films, but as the years have gone by it as rightfully taken its place as one of the best of his career. Unfortunately, it is also one of the more difficult ones to review without giving too much away. This film is one of Hitchcock's most terrifying partially because birds are so common and having them attack people on mass is nearly unprecedented. Also, throughout the movie the motivations of the birds are completely unknown, in fact, there's little reason to suspect they even have a reason for doing what they are doing.
Special Features: Tippi Hedren screentest - 9 minutes long, "The Birds" is Coming - 1 minute long newsreel footage, Suspense Story - 2-minute long newsreel footage, theatrical trailer, four slideshows, and the production notes.
Note: While there are a lot of special features on this disc, it's more a case of quantity over quality as most of them are slideshows. But as with the previous movie, there's a feature-length documentary on the last disc of the set.

Marnie - 1964
Synopsis: Marnie Edgar is a pathological thief who disguises herself to get jobs only to later steal from her bosses. Mark Rutland is her latest target, but does he suspect her, and if so, what does he want?
Review: When the movie first came out, it was not greeted kindly by the critics or audience members. Part of the problem was Alfred Hitchcock's use of matte paintings and process screen techniques while at the time directors were relying much more on real location shots. Hitchcock preferred to work on a studio because he had more control, but compared to other movies of the day looked too fake and many people thought he was too old-fashion for modern audiences. However, looking back at it, it doesn't look any more old-fashion than the above films and so it doesn't stand out in that regard. What does stand out is the psychological nature of the film, which is top notch. It's not the best film Hitchcock ever made, but I'd put it in the top third. Special Features: The Trouble with Marnie - a 58-minute long making of featurette, theatrical trailer, production photographs, and production notes.

Torn Curtain - 1966
Synopsis: Scientist Michael Armstrong and his assistant / fiancee, Sarah Sherman, are on their way to a convention in Copenhagen, Denmark. However, along the way she begins to suspect there's more to the trip than he is telling her. But what is the truth, and does she even want to know?
Review: After going through set once, I considered this film to be the low point in this box set. There are three main problems, firstly, and most importantly, the script was not satisfactory to the director but had to be used because there was serious scheduling constraints, (importantly, there was a lack of humor in the film). Secondly, I don't like the casting of Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, neither of which are bad actors but they were not Hitchcockian actors and didn't fit with the film. Lastly, it has the same problems as the previous film with its out-of-date filming methods. On the other hand, the film also has some very amazing scenes and some particularly strong methods. For instance, the chase scene between Michael Armstrong and Gromek is done mainly with just the sound of footsteps and is masterful and the follow-up scene with the murder of Gromek is also very well done as is the changing point of view from Michael's to Sarah's and finally to them together. Overall, I would put the film in the lower third of Alfred Hitchcock's work, but a below average film for him is still worthy of repeat viewing.
Special Features: Torn Curtain Rising - a 31-minute long making of featurette, Scenes Scored by Bernard Herrmann - several scenes using the original score with a total running time of 14 minutes, theatrical trailer, production photographs, and production notes.

Topaz - 1969
Synopsis: After a Russian official defects to the United States, in exchange for a new life he promised to tell them all he know, but when he is less than forthcoming about Topaz, a French spy ring that is passing NATO secrets to the Russians. What happens from there on is an international spy thriller reaching from New York, to Paris, to Cuba.
Review: Another film that failed to strike a cord with critics or moviegoers when it first came out. The film had a very European feel with most European cast and locations, and this alienated mainstream American audiences. Also, it's just not that good of a movie when compared to other films made by Alfred Hitchcock. Topaz is only marginally better than Torn Curtain on its first viewing, but it doesn't have the same replay value.
Special Features: Topaz: An Appreciation by Film Historian and Critic Leonard Maltin - a 28-minute long retrospective, Alternate Endings - all three endings that were done for the movie with a combined running time of 6 minutes, theatrical trailer, storyboards, production photographs, and production notes.

Frenzy - 1972
Synopsis: The London police are in a panic, a serial killer nicknamed the "Necktie Murderer" is stalking the city and they seem powerless to stop him. At the same time, Richard Blaney is also having a bad day; he was fired from his job, he lost out on a chance for some quick cash, and had to spent the night in at a Salvation Army hostel. But the next day gets even worse as he becomes the chief suspect as the "Necktie Murderer."
Review: Another film that shocked audiences looking for a typical Hitchcock film as this one was a lot more sexual charged, (it also was the first, and only film to include nudity). However, it was also a huge step up from Torn Curtain and Topaz; it is still not one of his best, but its in the top third, or close to it. The film has a lot of classic Hitchcock touches including a strong mix of comedy, I especially like the scenes between the detective and the wife with all the horrible foods she tries to feed him and the then there's the famous back tracking shot following Babs' murder.
Special Features: The Story of Frenzy - a 43-minute long making of featurette, theatrical trailer, production photographs, and production notes.

Family Plot - 1976
Synopsis: Blanche Tyler is a psychic, at least she thinks she's a psychic, her partner thinks otherwise. However, when she lands a rich client who wants to find his late sister's long lost son, he's more than willing to do the leg work for a piece of the $10,000 reward money. But sometimes people who are lost don't want to be found.
Review: Most people don't look fondly on this movie mainly because it was Alfred Hitchcock's last film and most people want his swan song to be a classic like North by Northwest or Rear Window. And yes, the film is not one of his best; it is certainly better than its reputation is. Alfred Hitchcock doesn't get enough credit for his ability to direct comedy, and while this movie is a crime thriller, it has most comedic elements since The Trouble With Harry. Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock was very controlling of actors for most of his career, but in this movie he allowed the actors to ad-lib quite a bit, including the final scene of the movie where Blanche Tyler winks at the camera. While it might not be the perfect end to his career, it was still a very fine movie and worth watching twice.
Special Features: Plotting Family Plot - 47-minute long making of featurette, theatrical trailer, storyboards, production photographs, and production notes.

Bonus Disc
AFI Salute to Alfred Hitchcock - 14 minutes: A portion of the 1979 AFI tribute to the director, includes speeches given by James Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock, and others. Alfred Hitchcock doesn't make many appearances in the special features on this 14-disc box set, so this is a nice feature in that respect; however, it isn't that interesting outside that aspect.
Masters of Cinema - 33 minutes: Two interviews with Alfred Hitchcock on a program called Masters of Cinema. Not the best interviews I've seen, but it was nice to see Alfred Hitchcock talk about his films after hearing so many others do the same.
All About the Birds - 78 minutes: A very detailed, feature-length making of documentary of perhaps Alfred Hitchcock most unusual film, The Birds. Out of all the films on this set, The Birds was the one I wanted to learn more about so I was grateful for this feature.
The Making of Psycho - 92 minutes: like the above documentary, only this time on the making of Psycho. This is the longest single feature in the box set, and I learned quite a bit about the film from.

Collectable Booklet - 36-page booklet with a brief description of each movie plus some photographs. A minor addition to the set that neither adds nor detracts from its value.

Packaging: Normally I don't mention the package the discs come it because it's just not that important; however, in this case the velveteen case is so fancy it deserves to be mentioned. In fact, it makes the rest of my DVD collection look pedestrian by comparison.

Conclusion: Out of the 14 films on this list, I would rate four of them as must haves, (Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds), I would rate half as worth picking up, (Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Marnie, Frenzy, Family Plot) and the rest as renters, (Saboteur, Torn Curtain, Topaz). Granted, all the movies have been released on DVD before, but never in such a wonderful set making The Masterpiece Collection easily worth the price for avid and casual collectors alike.


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