BluRay/DVD Reviews

ALFRED HITCHCOCK – THE PREMIERE COLLECTION

By • Dec 2nd, 2008 •

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“You go through your ordinary little day, and you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares.” That’s a line from a classic Alfred Hitchcock film. It could be Hitchcock himself, talking to an eager, film-loving audience that for decades has stayed and grown with dozens of his outstanding films.

20th Century Fox’s “Alfred Hitchcock- The Premier Collection” is an amazing treat for the Hitchcock fan, and essential who all of us who love great movies! The first of the eight films in the set is the silent 1926 THE LODGER, Hitchcock’s debut exercise in suspense cinema. This tale of a mysterious, cloaked tenant, who may be a depraved sexual serial killer is an opportunity to see Hitchcock begin using his beloved cinematic trademarks. This lodger turns out to be a victim of mistaken identity; the police tracking him are fearful, and there’s a young women who places herself in horrid danger to save this lodger. The film ends with the first climatic Hitchcock chase. Before this box set, those wanting to see this film directed by the then 27-year old Hitchcock had to settle for contrasty public domain dupes, usually made off of already battered 16mm prints. One would think Hitchcock filmed THE LODGER with an elevator security camera! Here we get a beautifully restored LODGER, bursting in clarity, with gorgeous blue and red tinting, and that welcome chilling sense of dread that Hitchcock would build on in later years. The LODGER disc comes with great extras, one of which is “Hitchcock 101”, a short wherein Hitchcock’s grand-daughter tells of taking a college course on her grand-dad’s films – and she never told her professor who her famous grandpa was!

The next two films in the set come from Hitchcock’s early British period, SABOTAGE (1936) and YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937). Like THE LODGER, both films were normally available through public domain prints, robbing viewers of so much detail. They both look and sound great here, reminding us of the care Hitchcock put into his work. In SABOTAGE, Verloc, a timid terrorist (Oscar Homolka) is forced to set off a bomb in London’s Picadilly Circus. Even though a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder) is on Verloc’s trail, Hitchcock focuses on ordinary every-day citizens who are involuntarily thrown into this deadly, violent world. Verloc gives Stevie, his innocent teen-aged brother-in-law a “package” to deliver across town. The package, an ordinary film-can, is really the deadly explosive. Stevie is delayed in his cross-town trip. He boards a crowded bus, not knowing the bomb is scheduled to go off. It’s an unbearably suspenseful moment. We know we are in the hands of a master director in SABOTAGE. Hitchcock’s key visual elements here: signs of innocence – puppies, bird cages, a Disney cartoon, and warm meals – are given such a dark, chilling treatment that we never know where to turn or what happens next in this vastly under-rated classic.

His next film, YOUNG AND INNOCENT, is an entertaining light comedy-thriller, similar to NORTH BY NORTHWEST. A struggling writer (Derrick DeMarney) is wrongly accused of strangling a female movie star. Escaping from the police, he crosses paths with the headstrong Erica (Nova Pilbeam), the daughter of the local Constable (Percy Marmont). So much of this film is visually driven, keeping the audience on its toes all the time. YOUNG AND INNOCENT’s most celebrated moment is a beautiful tracking shot starting with a wide shot of a massive ballroom and closing in on the real killer’s twitching eyes.

The next four films in the set represent Hitchcock’s early work in Hollywood, where he was teamed with producer David O. Selznick, who always bought in the best of the best for his productions. These films, REBECCA, SPELLBOUND, NOTORIOUS and THE PARADINE CASE abound with amazing black and white cinematography, the best writing, and top drawer acting talent. REBECCA throws that old rule of films being wish fulfillment, dreamlike stories with happy endings, into a delicious whirlwind of Hitchcockian darkness. A drab young woman (Joan Fontaine) meets and falls in love with the mysterious, exotic Max DeWinter (Laurence Oliver). Manderley, his mansion, is a labyrinth of rotting, forbidding secrets. This is Hitchcock’s first American film, and his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar. It’s highlighted with a terrific supporting cast. George Sanders is the hissable bad guy, and Dame Judith Anderson makes film history here as a butchy maid nobody in their right mind would want in their house.

The next Hitchcock/Selznick teaming is 1945’s SPELLBOUND. Like REBECCA, SPELLBOUND exists in a gorgeous monochromatic world of darkness. SPELLBOUND takes a while to get started, but soon we are glued to this tale of a psychologist (Ingrid Bergman, being oh so professional and gorgeous here) helping a troubled fugitive (Gregory Peck, making us fear and root for him at the same time) escape police and break through amnesia in order to clear his name of murder. SPELLBOUND created a sub-genre of films that, in a very entertaining way, treated psychology as black magic, something that has instant results, like bug spray! Hitchcock returned to this world of pop-psychology in his masterful VERTIGO and the wonderfully eccentric MARNIE. Mel Brooks cribbed big time from SPELLBOUND for HIGH ANXIETY, his comedic spoof of Hitchcock. (Side note: Brooks feared that Hitchcock hated HIGH ANXIETY. But days after Hitchcock saw the film, he sent a congratulatory case of wine to Brooks, knowing Brooks was a wine connoisseur.) The SPELLBOUND disc comes with terrific extras, such as a documentary telling all the secrets one would wish to know about Salvador Dali’s contribution to the visual knock-out of a dream sequence that highlights the film.

Bergman goes from the strong, bookish doc in SPELLBOUND to the helpless and vulnerable Alicia in NOTORIOUS, one of filmdom’s darkest romantic corners. Alicia, a rebellious alcoholic, is pushed by Devlin, an FBI agent, to marry Alex, an escaped Nazi. Cary Grant, as Devlin, reworks the typical movie hero, forming a flawed, mega-deep knight in shining, dented armor, thus being more real. Like Verloc in SABOTAGE, Alex (a great performances by Claude Rains) is a weak, often frightened villain. Living in constant fear makes these villains more dangerous, more deadly. In NOTORIOUS, Grant’s Devlin, a hero who can’t handle his girlfriend having to marry a Nazi, is at first an immature, glamorous force, but by the end, he pulls himself together and dives to the rescue. NOTORIOUS’ ending, has more romantic force than a century of Valentines Days, while at the same time, gloats at the inescapable fate facing the morally empty Alex. And that final shot of the film, with Claude Rains, Wowza!

Gregory Peck returns to Hitchcock for the last Selznick/Hitchcock pairing, THE PARADINE CASE, in which he plays a lawyer falling for his client (Alida Valli). This dialogue-driven film doesn’t have the expected visual slam-bang Hitchcock moments (a Disney cartoon triggering Sylvia Sidney to kill in SABOTAGE, the camera tracking to Ingrid Bergman’s fingers grasping a key in NOTORIOUS). Still, it deserves better then its undeserved negative rep.

Also in this set is the only film Hitchcock made for 20th Century Fox – LIFEBOAT, noted for the technical experiment of confining the entire film to a single, small set – a lifeboat deep in enemy waters, battered by World War II. Claustrophobia is a key element in all of Hitchcock’s work (many of his close ups and dialogue scenes feel very cramped) It’s LIFEBOAT’s driving force. My favorite performance here is Willie the Nazi (Walter Slezak) He seems friendly, willing to help his American co-survivors make it through a storm, and an improv amputation, but has hideous dark secrets.

The Hitchcock box set in Glenn's DVD shelf

Of course, this Christmas, if you have a film buff on your gift-list, you’ll want it! This Hitchcock box set is filled with terrific extras, great commentary tracks, and of course, eight varied gems by the great Alfred Hitchcock. My only negative is the bulky shape of the box set. Bigger than most DVD sets, it physically sticks out of DVD shelves like an army tank in a parking space. But, if you have to have a box set stand out in your DVD shelf, let it be Hitchcock.

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