Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ROSEMARY'S BABY: Blu-ray (Paramount 1968) Criterion Home Video


Most people regard the start of a marriage as one of the happiest times in their lives. Leave it to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to unsettle the expectations of young marrieds with an unnerving and unerring glimpse into the catastrophe that will eventually become Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse’s (John Cassavetes) lives. Polanski, who wrote the screenplay based on Ira Levin’s novel, was an unproven commodity in Hollywood, despite his reputation in Europe as a consummate professional. In Hollywood, director William Castle had practically begged Paramount executive Robert Evans to snatch up the rights to Levin’s psychological thriller while the book was still in galleys. Evans, who admired Castle’s taste but felt that his skills as a B-budget director of schlock horror left something to be desired, agreed to buy the book, provided Castle remained strictly the producer on the project. Castle reluctantly agreed, then quietly resented Evan’s hiring Polanski to helm the project.
Evans first choice for Guy – Robert Redford – declined the role citing prior commitments. Polanski had wanted Tuesday Weld for the part of Rosemary; described in the Levin novel as a fresh-faced, wholesome creature of bucolic naiveté. Polanski next thought of his own wife, Sharon Tate for the role. But the studio wanted a ‘name’ and Mia Farrow – with her most recent success on TV’s Peyton Place, as well as her marriage to Frank Sinatra, fit the bill. Polanski eventually concurred that Farrow was an ideal choice. But Sinatra remained ‘frankly’ unconvinced. Ol’ Blue Eyes would eventually give Farrow an ultimatum – him or the movie - then have his lawyer serve divorce papers right in the middle of the shoot. Farrow, who had come from the traditional workman-like Hollywood family, chose to honor her career instead of her marriage – in hindsight, a very wise decision indeed.
In the meantime, the relationship between Polanski and Cassavetes curdled. The two men – both on whom had acted for other people as well as directed their own projects – started out the best of friends on Rosemary’s Baby. However, this mutual admiration was not to last, particularly as Cassavetes felt less comfortable with his part and thereafter began keeping to himself, reshaping his role according to his own counsel; creating friction and a general unpleasantness between director and star. Polanski would later muse that Cassavetes performance was solid although he was also quick to point out that by the end of the shoot the actor had become a “pain in the ass”.
Viewed today, Rosemary’s Baby remains an undeniably spooky movie. Yet its status as a horror classic is something of a curiosity. True enough the tale of a young couple’s exposure to their seemingly harmless elderly neighbors, who just happen to be Satan worshipers; their dilapidated apartment complex a New York hotspot for human sacrifice and witchcraft, does lend itself to the clichés of horror. But Polanski’s direction, and indeed the film as it exists never adhere or even come close to the time honored precepts of the horror genre. The genius of the movie, like the novel, is that it remains psychologically perplexing; offering the audience a strange dream-like dementia that gradually descends into pure nightmare and madness from which there is no escape.
Our story begins with the Woodhouse’s move into The Bramford; a Gothic inspired apartment complex first shown to Guy and Rosemary by superintendent, Mr. Micklas (Elisha Cook Jr.) who informs them that the previous tenant has died unexpectedly, but from natural causes.  An old friend and writer, Hutch (Maurice Evans) informs the Woodhouses that the Bramford has a reputation; plagued by various unexplained occurrences that have resulted in several well publicized murders/deaths/suicides throughout the years. Regrettably, Hutch’s fantastic historical account does little to dissuade either Rosemary or Guy from having another look about the place.
The apartment, still furnished, is gloomy and foreboding, but yields an immediate fascination in the discovery of a rather large secretariat blocking an unassuming broom closet. Rosemary sees potential in the rooms and encourages Guy to sign the lease. A struggling actor whose previous roles have amounted to a few bit parts in off Broadway plays and a reoccurring stint as a car salesman on a TV commercial, Guy obliges his wife and the couple move in.
Almost immediately Guy and Rosemary are befriended by Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer); a pair of slightly doddering, exceptionally nosy neighbors whose paper thin bedroom wall butts up against their own. While doing her laundry in the Bramford’s spooky basement Rosemary is introduced to Terry Gionoffrio (Angela Dorian); a reformed drug attic whom the Castevets have taken in as their ward. Terry tells Rosemary that Minnie and Roman have been like the parents she never had, while Rosemary casually admires the rather odd pendant given Terry by Minnie that contains a rather odious smelling Tannis root.  It seems that Rosemary has made a new friend. But shortly thereafter Terry is discovered by Rosemary and Guy lying in a pool of blood on the pavement outside the Bramford, having fallen – or perhaps jumped – from one of the open windows.
Guy initially finds the Castevets quite intrusive; an opinion about to change after Minnie goads Rosemary into accepting a dinner invitation. While Rosemary and Minnie clear the table, Guy and Roman develop a strange bond, predicated mostly on Roman’s flattery of Guy’s talents as an actor. The following day, Guy misses out on a juicy part in a Broadway show. But he is hardly forlorn. In fact, he hurries over to Roman’s apartment, leaving Rosemary at the merciless nattering of Minnie and her best friend, Laura Louise (Patsy Kelly).  To express her gratitude, Minnie gives Rosemary Terry’s pendant, informing her that it is a good luck charm she should always wear.  
The next day Guy receives a phone call from the producers of the play, explaining that the actor they hired instead of him has inexplicably lost his sight. Flush with success, Guy rushes over to tell Roman, returning hours later with red roses for Rosemary and encouraging her to start their family. That night, however, Minnie arrives during their romantic dinner with ramekins of chocolate mousse as a sort of celebratory dessert. Guy devours his. But after only a few spoonfuls Rosemary reasons that there is some sort of aftertaste.  She becomes ill and passes out, succumbing to a series of hallucinations; imagining herself nude and surrounded by the elderly tenants, including Minnie and Roman. Raped by a demonic presence, and concluding that “this is no dream” – Rosemary awakens with a startle in her own bed the next morning, discovering scratches across her nude body. Guy sheepishly fabrics a story that he was drunk and took advantage of her while she lay unconscious, an invasion of her body that drives a wedge between Guy and Rosemary until a few weeks later when she learns that she is, in fact, pregnant.
Rosemary is encouraged by Minnie and Roman to drop her obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin) in favor of Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy); one of the most revered and prominent in his profession. A close personal friend of the Castevets, Sapirstein begins an aggressive regiment of vitamin drinks that he says Minnie will make for Rosemary from her fresh ground herbs that are far more potent than the usual prescription of pills other obstetricians generally prescribe.  All, however, does not go according to plan. Rosemary becomes increasingly ill, suffering severe abdominal pain and extreme weight loss. Her cravings gradually veer into the grotesque consumption of raw chicken liver. Despite her gauntness, Sapirstein assures Rosemary that she is well and has absolutely nothing to worry about.
Alarmed by Rosemary’s frailty Hutch also takes notice of the pendant around Rosemary’s neck and the curious smell emanating from it. After she explains that the Tannis root within is also part of Minnie’s vitamin drink prescribed her, Hutch decides to do some quiet research. Later, he telephones Rosemary at home, setting up a luncheon date for the next afternoon. Only Hutch never makes it to their prearranged rendezvous outside the Time/Life Building.  Telephoning his house after waiting for him for several hours, Rosemary learns that Hutch has inexplicably slipped into a coma. Three months later, he dies in hospital, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and encouraging his doctor to give Rosemary a book on witchcraft he had been researching on her behalf.
At Hutch’s funeral his close friend, Grace Cardiff (Hanna Landy) gives Rosemary the book with a cryptic message: “the name is an anagram”. After some puzzlement, Rosemary uses a Scrabble set to deduce that Roman Casavets is really Steven Marcato, the son of a former Bramford resident accused of worshipping the devil. Beginning to suspect that she is in great danger, and that perhaps Guy has been swayed to their witch’s coven, Rosemary also becomes suspicious when she realizes Guy has previously stolen a tie from the actor who went blind, and also a glove from Hutch. Perhaps these personal effects were used by Roman and Minnie to cast destructive spells on both men. That afternoon, Rosemary refuses Minnie’s vitamin drink and comes to suspect that Dr. Sapirstein is also a part of the coven who seeks to possess her baby.
Frantic, Rosemary packs a suitcase and escapes the Bramford to Dr. Hill’s office. He listens intently to her seemingly paranoid tale before encouraging her to lie down in one of his unoccupied examination rooms. Hill tells Rosemary that he will place her in protective care at Mount Sinai, but instead telephones Guy and Sapirstein who come to retrieve Rosemary and take her back to the Bramford.  Attempting yet another escape, Rosemary is subdued by Guy and Sapirstein. She goes into labor and is sedated; awakening hours later only to be told that her baby has died.
However, in the days that follow Rosemary hears the whimpers of a child coming from Roman and Minnie’s apartment. Remembering how the secretariat had been pushed up against the hall closet, Rosemary finds a secret passage behind its walls that leads into the Castavet’s apartment.  Armed with a butcher knife, Rosemary follows the sounds of a child crying into Minnie and Roman’s living room where all of the devil worshippers, including Guy and Sapirstein, have gathered to celebrate the birth of Satan’s offspring – Rosemary’s baby.  Horrified, Rosemary spits in Guys face, but is lulled to the cradle by Roman who encourages her to be a mother to her child. The film ends with Rosemary gently rocking the cradle.
Rosemary’s Baby is bone-chilling, yet remarkably restrained entertainment. The true horror of the piece is not derived from special effects or gruesomeness that would progressively infiltrate and devolve the horror genre into the blood and guts offshoot it remains to this day. And even in its depiction of satanic worship, Rosemary’s Baby is genuinely self-possessed; Polanski keeping the more demonstrative aspects of human sacrifice and the occult at bay, just enough for the audience to interpret them via Mia Farrow’s character’s sorrowful self-discovery. In retrospect, Rosemary’s Baby owes much to, and is more en par with Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943) another tale of innocence lost through demonic worship, than later likeminded fare like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) where Satan becomes ‘the star’ of the story.    
Yet Rosemary’s Baby does not cheat the audience from exorcising its penetrated fear. Partly because Farrow’s performance is so ‘damn good’ and efficient at extolling the inner tumult of this raped waif impregnated with the anti-Christ’s demon seed, and partly the result of Polanski’s ability to elicit genuine revulsion through a style that is rarely graphic (a la William A. Fraker’s brilliantly claustrophobic cinematography and Richard Sylbert’s spooky production design), the film mounts its suspicions in a gradual, methodical way – ever so slightly tweaking our perceptions and even playfully toying with the reality of Rosemary’s own imploding sense of self-preservation.   
Take, for example the sequence when Rosemary, having discovered that Sapirstein is a part of the witch’s coven, hurriedly rushes to a telephone booth on a street corner in Manhattan, determined to telephone Dr. Hill for his counsel and salvation. Polanski stages the sequence from a vantage just outside the glass booth, with Farrow’s frantic protagonist desperately clutching the receiver – all the while exposed to passersby who infrequently attempt to intrude on her conversation.
Polanski has already primed the audience by giving Sapirstein a distinctive curly haircut. Thus, when a man comes into view from behind Rosemary with his back to the camera and a haircut similar the doctor the audience holds its breath while assuming the worst – that Sapirstein has found Rosemary. In fact, in the next few moments it is revealed that the man outside the booth is just another passerby (actually played by William Castle) who is patiently waiting to use the telephone.  
But the sequence does more than elevate the nail-biting suspense of the moment. It also challenges the audience to reconsider all that has gone before it. Are Rosemary’s fears about the coven founded, or is she merely experiencing a pre-partum anxiety that has temporarily overtaken her logic and sanity? Until the final moments of the film we’re never quite sure because, on the one hand Minnie and Roman’s behavior could definitely be considered suspicious, while on the other it could just as easily be misconstrued: harmless though annoying as it is, but just a lonely old couple thoroughly fascinated by their new youthful tenants.
And Polanski’s direction has been of no help thus far to resolve the issue for his audience in any sort of concrete way. What has he given us? A missing glove and exchanged neckties to suggest a coma and unexplained blindness.  Garbled chanting obscured by dense plaster walls while Rosemary suffers a nightmare that ends with only her suspicions that something out of the ordinary has occurred. A strange smell emanating from a pendant bequeathed to her as a gift by a neighbor grateful for her consolation after Terry’s untimely death. Are these omens of some paralyzing truth or exaggerated precursors suggesting odd behavior that is just that – odd, but thoroughly harmless?
Rosemary’s Baby never seems willing to tell us – not until its very last scene when we are faced with the dread of our lost heroine’s apocalyptic reality.  In that moment the film arguably falls apart – or at least suffers from a sudden puncture of our collective anxiety. The mystery solve, the riddle exposed, we face the end of Rosemary’s Baby with the same sort of detachment our heroine feels as she approaches the cradle where the child she has conceived with the devil helplessly lays – defeated in her initial intent to kill it and save the world.
With the recent announcement that Paramount Home Video has all but divested itself of responsibilities where its own catalogue titles are concerned, it is gratifying to have Criterion take up the mantel on Rosemary’s Baby and give us this gorgeous hi-def transfer mastered in 4k resolution. The results are breathtaking. Colors take a quantum leap forward as does overall image sharpness – never a strong on any of the DVD incarnations. We lose that awkward green tint that plagued the DVDs; colors far more accurately represented with flesh tones that look natural for a change. Fine detail abounds throughout and contrast levels are bang on. There are a few extremely rare moments when film grain inexplicably intensifies and colors appear just slightly off and/or faded. But we’re talking mere seconds. Otherwise this is a superb visual presentation that will surely not disappoint.
The audio has been preserved in 2.0 mono, which is probably just as well. Rosemary’s Baby is a dialogue driven movie. Occasionally, dialogue sounds muddled and/or strident, but mostly this is a very well preserved incarnation of the original mono mix with all the inherent flaws expected and minimized for a pleasing listening experience. Extras include three documentaries; one recently produced with the participation of Farrow, Evans and Polanski that offers fresh insight and fascinating backstories. Good stuff all around. Criterion also pads out this offering with extensive linear notes and essays. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION: Blu-ray (Paramount, Universal, WB, Skirball 1942-76) Universal Home Video


Alfred Hitchcock remains one of the most – if not the most – revered directors in Hollywood’s history, even if he occasionally gets slammed for making the same movie over and over again. Apart from being a genius in his medium, Hitch’ was also not above a bit of shameless self-promotion. His cameos (originally born out of necessity to fill the backdrop of his British films where money for hiring extras was tight) became a much anticipated trademark during his American tenure. But it was those introductions to his weekly TV show ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ that made his visage and wry humor instantly recognizable.
Hitchcock’s affinity for the ‘wrong man’ scenario and ‘MacGuffins’ (tangible commodities within the story that are of only superficial importance to the actual plot) was to become passé by the mid-1960s; a particularly difficult period for the director who saw his own popularity steadily plummet after the release of Marnie. Did audiences turn against Hitchcock or did his movies simply become less proficient? The jury is still out on that one. Diehard fans insist the master never made a bad film, but troubled productions like Topaz and Torn Curtain suggest otherwise.
There is little to deny that by the end of his career Hitchcock’s critical reputation had slipped. But his legacy in totem never fell entirely out of fashion. Endlessly revived on late night television, and later, in various formats on home video, Hitchcock remains indestructible. He is probably the only director who can still command a viewing audience on name alone – enough to sell out tickets virtually in minutes whenever his films are revived on the big screen, and that alone is impressive.
But more so are his films, that while dated in their star power have arguably never aged in their ability to shock and delight us with their uncanny sense of ‘pure cinema’. Any one of Hitchcock’s many movies would be enough to sustain another director’s reputation as an auteur. The fact that Hitchcock repeatedly made such iconic contributions to the world of film (and more often than not hit the bull’s eye dead on) is beyond reproach. He is the undisputed master of suspense. 
Universal Home Video reunites 15 Hitchcock movies for the ‘Masterpiece Collection’. Arguably, not all of them are classics. The first is Saboteur (1942); a variation on war time espionage themes more fully fleshed out in Hitch’s own Foreign Correspondent made the same year. Produced independently for Walter Wanger, the story is that of Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) an aircraft factory worker who is suspected of being a Nazi saboteur after a fire destroys the munitions plant he works in and kills his best friend.
On the lam, Barry meets kindly blind man, Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glasser) and his niece Pat (Priscilla Lane), who is too quick to believe the worst about the mysterious man hiding in her uncle’s cabin – even going so far as to make several valiant attempts to return Barry to the authorities. Eventually winning Pat’s trust, Barry embarks on a cross country chase after Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd); the real saboteur.
Despite some clever and engaging set pieces Saboteur is something of a patchwork; its screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker becoming extremely episodic. The final race through New York City is thrilling. But the early tension in the film is often interrupted with glib repartee between Cummings and Lane - occasionally veering dangerously into screwball comedy. In the final analysis, Saboteur is edgy, but not brilliant. It is second tier Hitchcock which means it is first tier everybody else.
There are several reasons why Hitch’ considered Shadow of A Doubt (1943) his favorite movie. First, it was his chance to break away from the authoritarian rule of David O. Selznick whom Hitch’ regarded as oppressive at best. The production also realized Hitchcock’s dream to direct films that he also produced; this being made for his very own company Skirball Productions – peripherally aided by Walter Wanger. The film was also something of a throwback to Hitch’s early career in Britain in that most of the action takes place within a single setting – in this case, an unassuming family home in the small town of Santa Rosa.  
Young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is a teenager wilting from boredom. She is stirred from these doldrums with the unexpected arrival of her mother’s brother; Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotten) – for whom she has been named. There’s just one problem: Uncle Charles is also The Merry Widow Strangler, responsible for a string of heinous murders of rich dowagers back east.
Charles presents the Newtons with lavish gifts - token souvenirs from his brutal slayings. Yet, the motive for his killings has not been money. In one of the film's most chilling moments, Uncle Charlie illustrates his indelible contempt for “rich, fat, greedy women”, equating their useless lives to slovenly animals fit for the slaughter. His declaration raises more than a few curious eyebrows around the dinner table, particularly Charlie’s – who has begun to have her suspicions. With a bit of amateur sleuthing Charlie learns the truth about her beloved uncle. But she is initially reluctant to share her findings with the rest of the family, particularly her emotionally fragile mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge) for whom Charles’ sudden reappearance in town has meant everything.
Shadow of a Doubt is a beautifully crafted drawing room murder mystery – methodically paced and quite stylish in its deconstruction of that idyllic portrait of midtown America; a place where nothing bad is ever supposed to happen. Hitchcock shoots the Newton home – an actual house in Santa Rosa – with appreciation for its cloistered hominess, as though it were the epitome of small town gracious living. He furthers this idealism by populating the home with a solid cast of stellar supporting performers, including Henry Travers as Mr. Newton, Hume Cronyn, as a humorously meddlesome neighbor, Herbie Hawkins, and Macdonald Carey (a Fox favorite) in probably his best role, as the sympathetic police detective, Jack Graham with whom Charlie has begun an adolescent infatuation.
Hitchcock’s first effort as a freelance director and his first film in color was Rope (1948) based partly on the Leopold Loeb case, but more directly derived from Patrick Hamilton’s modestly successful stage play; ‘Rope’s End’. In the play a pair of homosexual school mates has strangled a straight colleague for kicks. They throw a party for the deceased’s family while the body remains hidden somewhere in the house. The film went one step further, placing the body inside a rather large credenza and then serving food and drinks to the family atop its closed lid, converted into a makeshift dining table.
To augment the perversity of the exercise this murderous duo also invites their old college professor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) to the party for two reasons: first because he is supposed to have instilled Nietzsche’s theory of the superman in them, thereby providing the justification for their thrill killing, and second, because Cadell is presumed to have had a homosexual affair with at least one of the killers.
Given the climate of censorship in Hollywood at that time Hitchcock could not directly suggest any of the aforementioned aspects about the crime, though he did succeed in creating a rather sycophantic closeness between the two actors who eventually played the murderers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger). For his part, Hitchcock used Rope as his second exercise to shoot an entire film on one set; a technical gimmick he promoted this time around as a film having ‘no edits’ or shot in ‘one continuous take.’ The premise, while interesting from a technical standpoint, proved improbable. Only ten minutes of film exist in a camera at any given time.
Undaunted, Hitchcock rehearsed his camera movements meticulously, closing in on an actor’s back or close up of a wall at the end of ten minutes before reloading the camera for his next reel. The assemblage of raw footage does give an awkward illusion of stagey continuity – an ‘uninterrupted’ photographic account of the stage play. Regrettably, it also makes the viewer acutely aware of the gimmick every ten minutes throughout the story by exposing the 'edits' that Hitchcock was desperately trying to hide.
In hindsight, the chief difficulty with Rope is its central casting of James Stewart as Rupert Cadell, the boy’s criminology professor. Unable to project the subtext of homosexuality, Stewart places the film’s chief premise curiously off balance. One cannot fathom any intimate understanding ever transpiring between Brandon, Philip and Rupert. As such James Stewart’s character is left with the rather mundane task of detecting the crime and bringing his former pupils to justice. When Rope was finally released it did respectable business but was by no means a resounding success.
Arguably, the start of Hitchcock’s real ‘reel’ golden period began with the release of Rear Window (1954). Based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story 'It Had To Be Murder', Rear Window is a watershed film for Hitchcock in many ways. First, it was his foray into Paramount's patented VistaVision widescreen process. Second, it reunited Hitch’ with his favorite cool blonde, Grace Kelly (the two had worked previously on Dial M For Murder) and his favorite everyman James Stewart.
In Rear Window Stewart is L.B Jeffries, a somewhat sexually repressed magazine photographer laid up with a leg he broke while on one of his assignments. To pass the time, Jeffries spies on his neighbors: the voluptuous Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), forlorn Miss Lonely Heart (Judith Evelyn), frustrated composer (Ross Bagdasarian) and frisky newlyweds (Rand Harper, Havis Davenport).  However, Jeff's attentions shift to the spurious comings and goings of one Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) after Thorwald’s wife, Anna (Irene Winston) suddenly vanishes from their apartment without a trace in the middle of the night.
At first both Jeff's girlfriend, fashion model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and his physical therapist; straight shooter Stella (Thelma Ritter) believe that he has begun to suffer from cabin fever. But then there are Thorwald’s unexplained bits of business slyly observed by all through Jeff’s rear window that suggest a more sinister conclusion. Did Lars Thorwald murder his wife? It isn’t long before Lisa has decided to play amateur sleuth and get to the bottom of things – a move that nearly gets her killed in the process.
Rear Window is a miracle of screen economy. Jeffries' apartment, courtyard and the facing facades were all built as one gigantic three sided indoor set inside Paramount’s Stage 11, removing the false floor at ground level to create an even greater sense of depth and height, thereby allowing for total control of lighting and sound conditions. The set is at once unremarkable, yet claustrophobic, adding to the tension in John Michael Hayes' taut screenplay.
Like so many of Hitchcock's most fondly remembered thrillers, there is more than one story unfolding inside L.B. Jeffries' modest apartment. The central narrative is undoubtedly focused on resolving the mystery behind Anna Thorwald's disappearance. But there’s also a fascinating subtext of male sexual frigidity running through the Jeff/Lisa romance. Lisa has already decided that Jeff is her guy - a curious choice indeed, given his modest income and her affinity for expensive clothes; his middle age angst pitted against her youthful maturity, and finally, his absolute aversion to wedding chimes that Lisa hears peeling madly for both of them.  In truth, Jeff can't think of a single reason not to marry Lisa. She's perfect. Perhaps, that is the problem. Jeff knows that he's not.
Given his flourish of critical and box office success in the realm of suspense Hitchcock’s decision to do a decidedly featherweight black comedy next, The Trouble With Harry (1955) seems odd. Perhaps he simply needed a break from thrillers. Herein, Hitchcock dapples in murder played strictly for laughs – turning the gruesome into farce. Jack Trevor Story's novel approaches the subject matter with an irreverent disregard for taking anything too serious. Perhaps, this was the appeal for Hitchcock - as he had long been an adroit raconteur.
The trouble with Harry (Philip Truex) is that he’s dead – assassinated in the pastoral woods of Vermont, or so it would seem. The body is discovered by precocious tyke, Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers) who believes that his mother, Jenny (Shirley MacLaine) might have murdered Harry in cold blood with a milk bottle. Everyone living in this small hamlet seems to have an alternative theory of the crime. Town scatterbrain and amateur sleuth, Miss Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick) thinks Harry died from a blow to the head inflicted by her hiking boot, while Capt. Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) is certain a wayward shot from his hunting rifle is responsible.
Enter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe); a congenial local artist who takes an active interest in solving the crime - not necessarily to get to the bottom of things - but simply to occupy his free time. Besides, he's rather fond of Jenny and her son, and is just as interested as the rest in keeping the town's stoic sheriff (Royal Dano) from discovering the body.
The Trouble With Harry was a costly misfire for Hitchcock. John Michael Hayes screenplay meanders, vacillating in the interplay between characters, yet giving them precious little to do except spark off each other's droll dialogue while relocating and re-relocating the corpse. Jennifer Rogers nonchalant reaction to her husband's death seems not so much playfully obtuse as downright cold-hearted and uncaring. Ditto for Sam's unrepentant lusting after her a mere few hours after Harry's death.
And then of course there is Miss Gravely's clinical approach to the crime that seems to set the whole curious affair completely off balance. Is this a fractured love story or a ‘who done it?’ Digging up Harry repeatedly without addressing the body as a person - and more to the point - someone everyone knew – is a fairly morbid premise to begin with and not at all the sort of comedy - dark or otherwise - that audiences were anticipating.  Even when viewed through today's more laissez faire morality there is still something genuinely aberrant, rather than silly, about the exercise. 
After all of the trouble on The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was a most welcome affair. For years Hitchcock had toyed with the idea of remaking one of his biggest smash hits from his British period. The Man Who Knew Too Much was actually made to fulfill Hitchcock's contractual obligations to Paramount. The studio willingly agreed to allow its star director a second bite at the same apple. But they pressed upon Hitchcock to cast Doris Day - then, a singing star in movies. Although he begrudgingly accepted Day as his leading lady, and even the inclusion of a song expressly written for her to sing in the film, Hitch’ was to change his mind about both the song and the actress, garnering a new found respect for her talents by the time filming wrapped.
In this remake Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) his wife, Jo (Doris Day) and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen) are on holiday in Marrakech where Ben is attending a medical conference. Jo is a retired from the London stage but is recognizable to her worldwide following. The McKennas are introduced to Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles); two admirers who ingratiate themselves into an invitation to dinner and later agree to show the McKennas the bustling market square.
The McKennas also meet mysterious Frenchman, Louie Bernard (Daniel Gelin) who offers to act as their cultural liaison. However when Bernard, disguised as a Arab, is stabbed before Jo and Ben’s eyes in the marketplace he manages to confide an ominous secret to Ben before dying; that a high ranking political official is to be assassinated somewhere in London. The plot thickens as Ben learns that the Draytons have kidnapped Hank and are holding him hostage to buy Ben’s silence until the assassination can take place. After telling Jo what has become of their child, the couple flies back to England where Ben pursues several false leads in the hopes of learning Hank's whereabouts.
Inspector Buchanan (Ralph Truman) encourages the McKennas to wait out their ordeal while the authorities take over. But Jo has already discovered the Drayton's hideaway inside a small church in White Chapel. Ben rushes to investigate and is knocked unconscious by Edward. Meanwhile, the Draytons take Hank to the Foreign Embassy. Jo pursues their hired gunman, Rien (Reggie Nalder) to Royal Albert Hall where she realizes the Foreign Prime Minister (Alexi Bobrimskoy) is the intended victim. Her screams foil the assassination and Ben bursts into Rien's balcony box, forcing him over the railing to his death.
In gratitude for saving the Prime Minister's life, the Foreign Ambassador (Mogens Wieth), who is also in on the plot, invites the McKennas to the embassy as his guests. Reluctantly, Jo and Ben acquiesce and are startled when Jo's song is echoed by Hank's faint whistling. While Jo proceeds to stretch out the verse and chorus, Ben follows the sound of Hank's whistle to an upstairs bedroom where Lucy Drayton is keeping him under lock and key. Ben is confronted by Edward Drayton - only this time he is prepared. The two men wrestle. Edward drops his gun and is thrown down a flight of stairs by Ben, who quickly escorts his wife and child to safety.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is an implausible espionage caper; elegant and full of McGuffins designed to keep the audience guessing. Under anyone else’s direction this material might have foundered. But the Hayes screenplay is slick and stylish, as are the performances from Doris Day and James Stewart. And Hitch’s cinematic genius repeatedly shows us why no one else is more adept at telling this kind of story.
For the scene where Ben is approached by the mortally wounded Louie Bernard, Hitchcock wanted the actor’s dark facial make-up to come off as he collapses in Ben’s arms, thereby revealing his true identity. Unfortunately, the thick make-up simply would not smudge. Eventually, Hitchcock came up with a clever solution – applying flesh-colored make-up to Jimmy Stewart’s palms and finger tips. As Ben catches Bernard’s face in his hands, the flesh toned make-up smears against the actor's dark face, implying that the opposite effect has occurred.
It is one of Hollywood’s great ironies – and perhaps even one of Hitchcock’s artistic tragedies that Vertigo (1958), arguably his most moodily ‘artistic’ film, was an abysmal flop when it opened. Indeed, the intricacies of the 'obsession’ driven narrative went right over the heads of most critics and audience members. But the passage of time has rectified this oversight and elevated our collective appreciation for the movie; an exemplary – even peerless - thriller. Without question, Vertigo is in a class apart from Hitchcock’s other suspense stories. It remains a diabolically tragic, yet rather tawdry tale, unchallenged in its originality and arguably, never equaled in its psychological complexity.
Based on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's D'entre les mort, the screenplay by Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel is as much a faithful adaptation of that harrowing literary masterpiece as it proved an occasion for Hitchcock to create a magnificent travelogue dedicated to the city of San Francisco. Robert Burke's spectacular cinematography manages at once to extol Hitch’s obvious love for the city, yet with an evocative sense of the foreboding.
For Vertigo, Hitchcock once again turned to his favorite 'every man', James Stewart; this time cast as retired police detective turned private investigator, Scottie Ferguson. Suffering from bouts of dizziness in high places ever since witnessing the death of a police officer, Ferguson’s professional days seem to be at an end. He is brought out of retirement by former college acquaintance, Gavin Elstor (Tom Helmore); a shipbuilder whose lavish lifestyle is owed to his wife's formidable family fortunes. But it seems that Elstor’s wife, the cool and strangely aloof Madeleine (Kim Novak) is plagued by mysterious blackouts. Elstor confides to Scottie that he believes in the very real possibility that Madeleine is being possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Vance – a well-known historical figure who met with a tragic end, and who will not rest until she has driven Madeleine to suicide.
At first, Ferguson refuses to believe this far-fetched tale. Gradually, however, he begins to piece together a premise that does indeed suggest some other worldly possession has taken place. Scottie tails Madeleine all over the city. She buys flowers that resemble those held in a portrait of Carlotta hanging in the national gallery. Later, Madeleine registers at a hotel under the name Carlotta. She even visits Carlotta's grave, plucking petals to spread about the ground.
After rescuing Madeleine from a failed suicide attempt at Golden Gate Park, Scottie discovers that he has begun to fall in love with her himself, much to the chagrin of his best friend, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) who has been sincerely hoping that Scottie will take a romantic interest in her. What Scottie doesn't realize is that he is part of an elaborate con concocted by Elstor and Judy – the woman impersonating his wife, Madeleine whom Elstor has already murdered. Luring Scottie to the mission bell tower at Old San Juan Batista – and knowing that his vertigo will prevent him from catching up to her in time - Judy/Madeleine appears to commit suicide by throwing herself off the belfry.
Driven into a catatonic state, Scottie is gradually nursed back to health by Midge, only to accidentally run into Judy as a natural brunette. After an awkward first meeting, Judy agrees to go out with Scottie - hoping against hope that he will come to love her for herself. But Scottie has become obsessed with remaking Judy over into the spot-on image of his dead love interest. Judy goes along with Scottie's wishes to a point, all the while fearing that he will connect the dots and realize the truth about her deception. Eventually, he does, forcing Judy to recreate the scene of the crime inside San Juan Batista to prove his point. Only Judy slips at the last possible moment and dies the same tragic death as her alter ego, leaving an emotionally scarred Scottie once more to pick up the pieces of his shattered romantic life.
In many ways Vertigo shows off Hitchcock’s cinematic prowess to its very best advantage. From the inventive spiraling main title sequence designed by Saul Bass, to Hitchcock’s extraordinary usage of color to evoke mood, to his memorable montage illustrating Scottie’s dizzy spells (a forward zoom/reverse tracking bit of camera trickery devised by Irmin Roberts and since overused in films and on TV), Vertigo is a movie-lover's feast.
James Stewart is haunting as the fragile neurotic. When his disheveled hair and wild eyes stare directly into the camera we believe every moment of his performance. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Kim Novak's rather asexual turn as the vixen/con artist. Novak's particular brand of icy allure has always escaped me. Equating her rigidity to sexual frustration doesn’t work either, and Novak really doesn't give us much else except a few brief moments of compelling fear to believe in. Despite this central weakness in casting, Vertigo clings together with an almost hypnotic brilliance.
Hitchcock capped off the 1950s with arguably the greatest of all his ‘wrong man’ inspired thrillers, North By Northwest (1959); a return to his more reliable blend of dark sadism and light humor. North By Northwest is the last of its breed – a slick and stylish, tightly scripted, glossy and elegant, thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride, starring the perennially peerless Cary Grant. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is chocked full of deliberate flights into fancy, with some of the most memorable set pieces ever conceived for a Hitchcock thriller.
Grant is harried ad man, Roger O. Thornhill (Hitchcock poking fun at the ‘O’ in David O. Selznick’s name). After being mistaken for a secret agent by Phillip Van Damme (James Mason), Roger quickly discovers that he is a sitting duck, rift for multiple assassination attempts by Van Damme’s men unless he can get to the bottom of things.
Unfortunately, Roger’s attempts at contacting UN political analyst, Lester Townsend (Philip Ober) go horribly awry when one of Van Damme’s assassins kills Townsend in the middle of the United Nations lobby, making it appear as though Roger is the killer. Considered a fugitive from justice, Roger next stumbles onto Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious flirt traveling by train who is intent on helping Roger elude the authorities. Slowly Roger comes to trust Eve and the two have an affair. However, when Eve appears to be working for Van Damme, Roger confronts their motley crew during a public auction, thereby exposing Eve to terrible danger. You see, Eve is the double agent.
Hitchcock relied heavily on matte paintings and process photography to sustain a level of pure escapist make-believe. The film’s two most memorable set pieces – a bi-plane assault on Roger in North Dakota, and the scaling of Presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore were both elaborately and convincingly staged at MGM in front of process screens. Some surviving studio memos indicate that this final race across Rushmore was recreated out of necessity rather than from Hitchcock’s innate dislike of locations after the State Park denied MGM access, or even permission, to use the real location.
By 1960 Hitchcock was internationally acclaimed and instantly recognizable around the world. Only part of this notoriety was due to his films. Hitchcock’s more palpable form of celebrity came from his weekly appearances on TV, introducing segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. TV’s budgetary restrictions and the fast pace of shooting an episodic series would serve as a template for Hitchcock’s next and most celebrated thriller.
Often cited as the film that matured American cinema into its present state of sublime cynicism, Psycho (1960) is based on a novel by Robert Bloch rooted in the real life serial killings by a deranged, yet unassuming New England farmer who quietly butchered his neighbors. In the book, Norman Bates is a rather pudgy middle aged recluse – easily identifiable as someone with a darker side. In transplanting these attributes onto the seemingly normal and youthfully handsome Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock plays upon an erroneous - yet almost universal misperception; that evil is easily identifiable or, as Shakespeare more astutely observed, “he who smiles may smile and be a villain.”
Budgeted at a remarkably modest $800,000, Psycho went on to earn forty million in its initial release – a telling sign of the cost-cutting that would come to exemplify film making more and more throughout the 1960s. Joseph Stephano’s screenplay is imbued with an immersive underlay of psychoanalysis, perhaps because Stephano was also in therapy at the time the script was being written.
The story begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh); a hot and bothered secretary whose lover, Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) is unable to commit to marriage because he is struggling to pay for his ex-wife’s alimony. To expedite their way to the altar, Marion decides to steal fifty thousand dollars from her employer as a runaway down payment on that fantasy life she misperceives can be hers. Unfortunately, en route from Phoenix to Fairfax the weather turns ugly, forcing Marion to take a night’s refuge at the Bates Motel from which she will never return.
The motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a congenial mama’s boy on the surface, but quickly develops a paralytic sexual frustration that manifests itself as murderous psychosis. After assuming the manner and attire of his dead mother, and brutally stabbing Marion to death inside one of the motel showers, Norman disposes of her body in a nearby swamp. Enter private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Assigned by Marion’s employer to track her down, Arbogast eventually traces Marion to the Bates Motel and shortly thereafter suffers the same fate as our heroine.
Forced to take matters into their own hands, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam journey to the motel and that now infamous old gothic house on the hill just beyond – actually a free standing set built on Universal’s back lot. After Sam diverts Norman's attentions Lila hurries up to the house in search of ‘Mrs. Bates’. Having earlier been told by Arbogast that Norman's mother is an invalid, Lila is determined to question the old woman. But Norman becomes unsettled by Sam's probing questions. After temporarily knocking Sam unconscious, Norman hurries to confront Lila who has hidden in the cellar, the last place she thinks anyone will look for her.
Unfortunately, the basement is home to the real truth about Norman Bates; that his mother, who figured prominently as a possible suspect in Marion’s disappearance, is actually a mummified corpse, dressed in her favorite shawl and wig, but rotted through nonetheless. Hitchcock frames Lila’s terrifying moment of realization in extreme close up, with mother’s back to the camera. He then slowly spins her chair around to reveal the shriveled corpse, its cavernous and blank eye sockets staring to some unfixed point beyond the camera. Lila's shrieks draw Norman to the cellar, dressed in his mother's clothes and toting a butcher knife for the next kill. But Sam arrives in the nick of time to thwart Lila's murder and apprehend filmdom's most celebrated serial killer.
Viewed today, the final act is dedicated to a somewhat laborious explanation by Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) about Norman's 'condition' - explained as an inability to reconcile his matricide by giving half his life to a schizophrenic counterpart that becomes jealous when Norman is sexually aroused by other women. But for its time, Psycho was a disturbing revelation.
The shower sequence that claims Marion's life remains one of the most effective and masterful bits of editing ever put on film. Involving ninety cuts, a partially nude stand in for Janet Leigh, and a melon being slashed to simulate the sound of steel cutting into flesh – the sequence unravels as an assault on the audience – its quick horizontal and vertical slashes reassembled inside our collective mindset as a brutal homicide that, in reality, is never entirely visualized on the screen.
Psycho was denounced by the Catholic League of Decency as well as by a select few film critics who thought Hitchcock had gone too far. The backlash, coupled with Paramount’s clever marketing only served to further fuel the public’s rabid fascination to see it. As a result, Psycho proved to be Hitchcock’s most profitable thriller. Three years later Hitch’ would startle audiences yet again, in his penultimate terror-fest, The Birds (1963); a technologically brilliant reworking of a short story by Daphne du Maurier, superbly fleshed out by screenwriter Evan Hunter.
After some searching Hitch' found his leading lady in Tippi Hedren, a statuesque beauty appearing in a shampoo commercial on television. Squiring the ingénue through various screen test and rehearsals, and even a private wardrobe fitting with imminent costumer Edith Head, Hitchcock finally revealed to Hedren that she had won the coveted role in his next big movie project; eliciting tears of joy from the former model.
The plot eventually concocted by Hunter is centered in the quaint hamlet of Bodega Bay: weekend getaway for hotshot defense attorney Mitchell Brenner (Rod Taylor). While in San Francisco, Mitch tweaks the nose of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a wealthy socialite and practical joker whose wild past has been regularly expounded in the tabloids. Mitch and Melanie quickly escalate their mutual antagonism from tempestuous rivalry to smoldering romance; a move quietly abhorred by Lydia (Jessica Tandy), Mitch’s mother and even more painfully observed with passive jealousy by Mitch's old flame, school teacher Annie Haywood (Suzanne Pleshette).
Mitch invites Melanie to his kid sister, Cathy's (Veronica Cartwright) birthday party. As there are no available rooms in town Melanie stays with Annie for the weekend. Despite their competing interests for Mitch’s affections the mood between Melanie and Annie becomes friendly, with Annie admitting that Lydia broke apart her relationship with Mitch years ago. Cathy’s party is interrupted by a flock of seagulls that dive bomb the children. Only a day earlier, Melanie was struck in the head by a wayward seagull while sailing off the coast of Bodega Bay. That incident might have been easily construed as isolated - but not the party: especially after a swarm of finches fly down the chimney later that same evening, transforming the Brenner's living room into a feathery mess.
The next day Lydia drives out to Dan Forsythe's farm to make her inquiries about some chicken feed that her fowl refuse to eat, only to make the gruesome discovery of Dan's badly mangled body, his eyes pecked out, lying in a corner of the upstairs bedroom. While the Santa Rosa police begin their investigation, Melanie offers to pick up Cathy from school. However, while waiting for class to let out, Melanie becomes acutely aware of a sinister flock of crows amassing on the jungle gym.
From here, Hitchcock ups the ante for his subsequent bird attacks. The crows descend upon the children but take no victims. In town, the gulls retaliate, knocking a gas station attendant unconscious. This assault begins a fire that the birds use to their advantage to launch their all-out attack on Bodega Bay. That night, Mitch boards up all of the windows in the Brenner home where Melanie, Cathy and Lydia wait out the deluge. The sound of flapping wings and screeching outside is deafening but eventually dies down.
After Lydia, Cathy and Mitch have fallen asleep Melanie is stirred by the nearby sound of fluttering wings, the beam from her flashlight inadvertently startling a mixed flock that have managed to peck through the roof. The birds pounce on Melanie, tearing at her hair and clothes and sending her into a catatonic state. Barely rescued from the attic, Melanie is carried to the car by Mitch, the family narrowly escaping as the birds plot their next attack.
From a purely technical standpoint The Birds is undeniably Hitchcock’s most ambitious movie, relying heavily on old school photographic trickery that only occasionally belies its origins under today’s closer scrutiny. The sodium matte process employed for the film was largely the invention of Disney SFX specialist Ub Iwerks, who was called upon after Hitchcock became dissatisfied with the less than stellar results reproduced by the more traditional ‘blue screen’ process.
At the time of its release Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) was billed as a Freudian sex mystery. Hitch’, who had earmarked the project for Grace Kelly’s splashy return to the movies, settled on Tippi Hedren instead after Kelly declined the part, citing royal commitments. Joseph Stephano wrote a preliminary draft. But Evan Hunter was then given the assignment to write the finished script. Regrettably, Hunter ran into a brick wall with Hitchcock over a ‘rape scene’ depicted in the original Winston Graham novel. In Graham's novel, Marnie is forced to have sex with her husband Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) after a particularly nasty spat.
Hunter tried unsuccessfully to argue that no one would have sympathy for a man who raped his wife. But Hitchcock disagreed and promptly fired Hunter, hiring Jay Presson Allen (a relative novice in the medium of film with only two professional stage writing credits to her name). After rewriting the rape scene, Hitch also had Allen alter key sequences in Stephano’s original treatment; changing the office lover’s triangle between two men, Mark and his rival for Marnie’s affections – Terry – to the more subversive pseudo-lesbian fascination finally realized by the character of Lil,’ Mainwaring (Diane Baker).
Allen's rewrites also removed a key sequence where Marnie seeks professional treatment for her compulsive thievery from a psychoanalyst. Henceforth, the responsibility of getting at the crux of Marnie’s sexual repressions fell to the character of Mark – possibly as a way of redeeming his character after the rape. Clearly an attempt on Hitchcock’s part to revisit themes superficially explored in Spellbound, upon its release, Marnie received almost unanimous negative reviews from the critics.
At any rate, Marnie is not a ‘sex mystery’. Even if one chooses to regard Marnie as a straight forward thriller, there is something off putting about the way Hitchcock ‘borrows’ from his past successes to fill Marnie’s running time. Hence, there is an overall ennui to the piece, particularly distracting for those who remember Hitch’ in his prime. In hindsight, Marnie marks the unofficial finale to Hitchcock’s American film career. Although Hitch’ continued to make movies, he lost his toe-hold on the pulse of the average movie goer with Marnie, something he arguably never reclaimed.
Torn Curtain (1966) is probably Hitchcock’s most awkwardly miscast thriller. It improbably stars fresh-faced pert and plucky Julie Andrews as Dr. Sarah Louise Sherman; fiancée to brilliant lecturer/scientist, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman). The two are in Copenhagen for a conference when Sarah begins to suspect that Mike is a communist defector. Like Lina’s contemplation over her husband’s innocence in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, made nearly two decades before it, Sarah’s assumptions about Michael in Torn Curtain turns out to be false and misleading – the screenplay by Brian Moore incessantly toying with her ‘what if’ scenarios and generally blowing all of them out of proportion with ironically timed unhappy accidents.
From pre-production on, Torn Curtain struck a decidedly sour note for all concerned.  There are no grand set pieces in Torn Curtain - nowhere for the master to use his camera to tell his story as ‘pure cinema’ without weighty exposition. Instead, we become mired in what Hitchcock often referred to as 'talking pictures'. The humorous bits, as in the sequence where a Polish Countess (Lila Kedova) attempts to blackmail Michael into becoming her sponsor to get to America, are not funny at all, while the dramatic moments featuring a bird-like Russian ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) are not nearly as suspenseful as they ought to be.
If Torn Curtain has a memorable moment it is the extended murder of bodyguard Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who realizes too late that Michael’s defection is a fraud. Here, Hitchcock illustrates for his audience just how difficult it is to kill a man – particularly when the adversaries are evenly matched. With the aid of a housewife, Michael attempts to strangle, stab, strike down with a metal skillet, choke, and finally gas his assailant inside a small cottage in the middle of nowhere. He is successful only in the last of these methods.
After the film’s cataclysmic thud at the box office, Hitchcock took nearly three years off before his next feature, Topaz (1969); a cloak and dagger spy thriller based on the sprawling best-seller by Leon Uris. He needn't have bothered. The novel proved just as problematic for Hitch' to adapt; its spies and rogue elements within the Russian and U.S. government woefully jumbled in Samuel Taylor's convoluted and ineffectual screenplay, that mangles Uris' prose.
We begin with a high ranking Russian diplomat, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius) who defects to America. After a lengthy prologue in which Kusenov and his family narrowly escape KGB agents in Denmark, the film settles into a rather standard and plodding bit of cloak and dagger; the crux being that Kusenov’s defection might actually have been a set up by the Russians.
Enter Agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe); a benign milquetoast who enlists the aid of a more flamboyant French spy and personal friend, Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to do a bit of homegrown subversion abroad, involving Castro-esque dictator, Rico Parra (John Vernon).  André accepts the assignment, even though his wife Nicole (Dany Robin) suspects that part of the allure for him has to do with sultry Cuban, Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) the wife of a dead freedom fighter who is actually a double agent working for the Americans.
Andre uses CIA operative Philippe Noiret (Roscoe Lee Brown), posing as an interviewer for Look magazine to infiltrate the hotel Parra and his entourage are staying at. Noiret ingratiates himself to Luis Uribe (Donald Randolph) but the two are caught spying on Parra’s private attaché full of documents, and Noiret barely escapes with his life.  The plot is then further complicated with the introduction of Andre’s son-in-law, Michèle Picard (Claude Jade) - a reporter who inadvertently uncovers a murder plot - then nearly becomes part of the body count himself.
With the success of the James Bond film franchise in the back of his mind, Hitchcock delved deeply into this espionage caper, but with Uris’ detailed narrative proving too involved and complex. Given the engaging subject matter, the film’s leaden pace and utterly dull and uninspired vignettes remain something of a grand disappointment. 
Hitchcock’s first sneak preview of Topaz was an absolute disaster, universally panned by the preview audience in their response cards. In planning another ending, Hitchcock made two compromises, neither completely satisfying – the latter with André and Nicole departing on a plane for France with their seemingly shattered marriage brought back into perspective; the other involving the off camera suicide of Claude Martin (John Van Dreelan) – the suspected head of the international cartel who has had an affair with Nicole.
To suggest that Hitchcock’s directorial sensibilities are painfully out of touch on Topaz is perhaps a tad harsh. However, film critic Leonard Maltin’s soft touch suggestion that Hitchcock is making a more personal film – perhaps not in tune with immediate public tastes, though solid entertainment nevertheless – is far too liberal a critique than any screening of Topaz allows. The movie is sluggishly paced and confusing to follow, particularly during its final reels. Visually it sinks like a stone, perhaps the one truly unforgivable blight on Hitchcock's American film-making career.  Topaz isn't just a bad movie. It's a bad Hitchcock movie!
Hitchcock would return to form, and to his roots, with Frenzy (1972) hardly a stellar example of the master in his prime, but competent and moderately enjoyable nonetheless. At its best, Frenzy is a modestly budgeted thriller with solid performances throughout. At its worst, it caters to the crass, low budget exploitation flick that had become a popular pot boiler at the drive-in during the 1960s. Based on Arthur La Bern’s novel, Farewell Piccadilly, So Long Lester Square, Frenzy is Hitchcock at his most uncharacteristic and undeniably gruesome. In many ways the film is a throwback to the kind of entertainment Hitch’ was making in Britain prior to leaving for Hollywood in the mid-1930s.
Shot on location in the UK, Frenzy opens with the discovery of a naked female corpse floating face down in the Thames; the latest victim of The Necktie Killer. After Hitchcock’s prerequisite cameo the narrative constructed by screenwriter Anthony Shaffer settles in on the firing of bartender Richard Blaney (Jon Finch); caught by his employer attempting to steal a drink from the pub. Blaney’s girlfriend, barmaid Babs (Anna Massey) encourages Richard to keep a stiff upper lip while searching for another job.
Richard is next seen strolling through Covent Garden by friend, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) – the actual serial killer. Rusk suggests that Richard move on to greener pastures, but all Richard can think of is to revisit his past; estranged wife and employment counselor, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). Shortly thereafter, Rusk also pays Brenda a call – one that ends with her becoming the next victim of the Necktie Killer. Implicated by the police in Brenda’s death, Richard takes up temporary residence with Babs, only to have Rusk murder her as well – thereby solidifying him as the only suspect in the eyes of the law. Richard is eventually incarcerated, though not before he has had the opportunity to figure things out for himself.
The killings in Frenzy are not only the most brutal for a Hitchcock film, but they tend to take on a distinct note of pandering to the times. Hitchcock ups the ante he first established in Psycho (1960) by inserting gratuitous nudity into several key sequences – titillating his audience with the prospect of exploitative erotica turned upside down; lust escalating into violent crime and sadistic death. A financial success, Frenzy introduced scores of younger film goers to Hitchcock at the movies even though it had become quite apparent to his most ardent fans that his best works were now sadly behind him.
Hitchcock rounded out his career with Family Plot (1976); an abysmal tongue-in-cheek mystery with few chills, and equally few laughs. The story concerns a fake medium, Madam Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern); con artists who cleverly scam naïve rich people out of their life savings. At present, their sitting duck is Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbit), a widow who is certain that the ghost of her dead sister has come back to haunt her.
George and Blanche accidentally cross paths with a pair of ruthless diamond smugglers, Arthur Adamson (William Devine) and his femme fatale girlfriend Fran (Karen Black). The two are behind a series of VIP kidnappings in the San Francisco Bay area. Based on Victor Canning’s novel, the plot as reconstituted in Ernest Lehman’s screenplay remains inconsequential, tired and meandering. In the original story – set in England - Blanche is a legitimate psychic whose clairvoyance is cause for much of the novel’s suspense. In transforming her into a clever opportunist who cannot even predict the contents of a ham sandwich, Lehman regrettably diffuses her importance in the film. As for the cast; everyone seems to be going through the motions – particularly Barbara Harris, who plays up the camp elements of the story as though the entire production were a sort of Freaky Friday Part Two instead of a Hitchcock thriller.
In point of fact, Hitchcock had long admired Harris as an actress. However, his ailing health may have contributed to his need to basically just get the job done. Viewed today, Family Plot is by far the most pedestrian of any Hitchcock film, utterly bland, with Hitch’s usual strict adherence to script becoming so relaxed that he even allowed Harris to improvise the final scene. Having discovered the much sought after diamond hidden within the dangling crystals of a chandelier, Madame Blanche addresses the camera – and therefore the audience – with a sly wink.
Hitchcock was also rather lax about re-shooting scenes with actor Roy Thinnes, whom he fired after his first choice for the role of Arthur Adamson - William Devanes - suddenly became available. Although Hitchcock was forced to re-shoot close-ups and medium shots already made with Thinnes for continuity sake, the long shots of Arthur walking away from the camera are not Devanes but Thinnes. In hindsight one wonders why Hitchcock chose to shoot Family Plot at all.
Universal has bundled all of these films together in a re-visitation of their plush velvet boxed ‘Masterpiece Collection’ released in 2000, this time with slimmer, somewhat more gaudy cover art and linear notes. The oddity in this Blu-ray set is North by Northwest, a title currently on loan from Warner Brothers. Presumably included to make this set more comprehensive, one wonders why the same care wasn’t taken to acquire Strangers on a Train and Dial M For Murder from WB and To Catch A Thief from Paramount. Together, these films would have provided the collector with a truly comprehensive offering of Hitchcock’s 50s, 60s and 70s output. But why fret about what’s not here. Let’s discuss what is.
Many will recall that this hi-def set was originally slated for early October. However, after reviewer Nick Wrigley spotted some severe and glaring problems with the discs minted for the British release, including misspelled title credits on Frenzy (really?!?!?). Universal promptly recalled the set so that corrections/improvements could be made before the North American release. So? Have corrections/improvements been made? Well, partly.
The good news: most of the films look fabulous – certainly light years better than they have on home video. Psycho and North By Northwest were released earlier by their respective studios and sport identical hi-def transfers. Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt – the two B&W features in this set – have been given meticulous upgrades. The gray scale is subtly nuanced with solid contrast and a modicum of fine detail present that really make the images pop. Grain has been naturally reproduced and age related artifacts, while present, are tempered to the extent that they are a non-issue.
Things become more problematic when we get into the color features. Rope looks very good with robust colors and crisp fine detail. The biggest overall improvement award goes to Rear Window and The Birds. Color fidelity has really taken a quantum leap forward. Flesh tones that looked pasty and (in Rear Window’s case) slightly jaundice, have a more natural pinkish tone and texture. I was particularly impressed by how vibrant Rear Window looked. Grain has been lovingly preserved on both films and DNR compression wisely used to ever so slightly keep the visuals smooth without softening the overall integrity. But The Birds looks scrubbed with DNR, its image softened with a general lack of crisp fine detail. I won’t poo-poo it any further. The Birds looks good but not great. It will surely not disappoint the average viewer.
Vertigo’s color is bold, rich and fully saturated without the orange flesh tones that plagued the DVD. But I wasn’t particularly impressed to still see a few nicks, chips and scratches, particularly during the main titles. These ought to have been cleaned up. The rest of the batch represents some uneven quality issues. Most shockingly bad is The Man Who Knew Too Much, the image yielding exceptional clarity but suffering from a complete implosion of color density and, in fact, consistency.
This film looks nothing like it did upon its initial release, or should, given all the digital wizardry at Universal’s disposal. For those who simply don’t know or don’t care about such things, The Man Who Knew Too Much will look adequate. But the rest of us are left to ponder what went wrong. The color on The Trouble With Harry looks weaker than anticipated with flesh tones just a tad too orangey for my tastes. Frenzy: the good news – titles have been corrected. The bad news?  A lot of DNR, veering dangerously into those waxen images with zero fine grain and a minute hint of edge enhancement to boot.
Topaz, Torn Curtain are adequately rendered as far as I can tell, but unremarkable in virtually every way. On the one hand, there are no unwelcomed surprises and that’s good. But on the other, the images don’t seem to have the visual snap that they should and look just a shay more refined than up-scaled comparisons of my DVD ‘masterpiece’ counterparts. Not loving Family Plot - a transfer with far too much pixelization throughout and sporting a very digitized look indeed!

Finally, there’s Marnie – an exceptionally problematic transfer with curious ‘video’ based noise and distortion that's akin to watching a movie with 'snow' during the good ol' analog days - NOT! - and that I presume was not a part of the film’s visual palette when the movie debuted, but was present to a lesser degree on Universal’s DVD minting of this title from some years ago.
The audio on all of the features except Psycho, North By Northwest and Vertigo is 2.0 mono and very faithfully reproduced. The aforementioned three titles have been given 5.1 stereo remixes that are stunning in their spatiality and clarity, but they also have their original mono mixes included. Extras…well…Universal hasn’t given us anything that wasn’t already on the original DVDs and, in the case of Vertigo and Rear Window have actually taken away a couple of extras included in their deluxe Legacy Edition DVD reissues; namely, the corresponding Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and the Harris/Katz audio commentary that is sorely missed.
Otherwise, we get featurettes on the making of each movie, archived behind the scenes photographs and trailers. It would have been nice for Universal to go all out with some spiffy audio commentaries on all of the films, but hey…why quibble? It is what it is – and overall, very smartly put together. Is it perfection? No. Will it please most? Undoubtedly. Aside: it will be interesting to see if Warner Bros. picks up the ball for their pending 90th anniversary next year by releasing a box set of their considerable Hitchcock holdings, including Suspicion, I Confess, Stage Fright, The Wrong Man. P.S. – MGM/Fox; please get around to giving us The Paradine Case, The Lodger, Young and Innocent and Sabotage on Blu as well!  We’ll see.

I can't in all good conscience recommend this set. Not for the price point and certainly not for the spotty quality. Universal ought to have made these movies available as singles and/or a set and let the chips fall where they may. But this set is really a snatch and grab on their part. Note to Universal - good marketing doesn't trump a bad transfer. Never does. Never will. You've lost a lot of fans with this one and thoroughly insulted Hitchcock lovers everywhere! For shame! Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Overall 4
VIDEO/AUDIO
Saboteur 4
Shadow of a Doubt 4
Rope 3
Rear Window 4
The Trouble With Harry 3
The Man Who Knew Too Much 2
Vertigo 4
North By Northwest 4.5
Psycho 4.5
The Birds 3.5
Marnie 1
Torn Curtain 4
Topaz 4
Frenzy 3
Family Plot 2


EXTRAS
3