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Blu-ray Review: Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection [15-Disc Limited Edition]

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Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock directed 53 feature films in his lifetime. Fifteen of those films are presented in the Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection “limited edition” (how limited, I don’t know) Blu-ray box set. The films cover an impressive time span (1942-1976) and include some of his most celebrated films, along with some lesser known titles. It’s a great collection for any Hitchcock fan, with 13 of these making their Blu-ray debut. The visual presentation is a very mixed bag. Buyers of the expensive set (MRSP: $299.98) should beware, many of these films could have been cleaned up far more than they were.

Five of the Master of Suspense’s greatest (and most popular) films are highlights of this set. These are probably the titles that will immediately jump out at the casual fan (though two of them are the ones already available as standalone Blu-rays). Rear Window (1954) stars James Stewart and Grace Kelly in a tense thriller about voyeurism. The film tells a tightly-controlled tale of suspense in which a wheelchair-bound photographer (Stewart) believes he has witnessed a murder while peeping at his neighbors through his camera lens. The tension builds as the man, along with his girlfriend (Kelly), attempts to solve the murder from the confines of his apartment. I have always found Rear Window to be one of Hitchcock’s most fun movies to watch. Stewart’s performance is excellent and the cat and mouse game he plays with the suspected murderer is full of believable danger.

Less pure fun, but far more fascinating, is Vertigo (1958), the story of an acrophobic former police detective-turned-private eye (James Stewart again) who becomes obsessed with the woman (Kim Novak) he has been hired to investigate. The story is intricately told and multi-layered, with every intriguing element slowly unfolding as the investigation deepens. It’s a story of obsession that was surprisingly not very well received at the time of its original release. Time has been especially kind to Vertigo, as it is now regularly cited as not only one of Hitchcock’s true masterpieces, but also one of the greatest films ever made.

The film I consider to be Hitchcock’s best is North by Northwest (1959). It stars Cary Grant as a man mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies. Hitchcock had many “wrong man” films, but North by Northwest is his crowning achievement within the venerable theme. Grant’s performance as a man desperate to prove the truth is magnificently charismatic. The story is entertaining and fast-paced. One never quite knows what’s going to happen next, with plot twists that keep the film fresh even after many viewings. The film’s climax at Mount Rushmore is exhilarating and still stands as one of the most breathtaking sequences ever captured on film. There’s also the crop-dusting scene, which stands as perhaps the most iconic sequence in Hitchcock’s filmography (after the shower scene in Psycho, that is). Northwest was previously available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros., who licensed it to Universal for this release (in the U.S. only).

Speaking of Psycho (1960) and its notorious shower, it’s Hitchcock’s most well-known film. At the time of its release it was considered quite shocking in its depiction of a brutal murder. The unexpected death of a main character early in the story was a daring, rule-breaking move as well. Anyone unfamiliar with the story will likely still be surprised by the outcome. Anthony Perkins’ brilliant performance as Norman Bates is unforgettable. My full review of the film can be found here.

Rounding out the set’s most popular films is another of my personal favorites, The Birds (1963). The film is kind of an unexpected horror movie. At the outset, the viewer isn’t expecting the terror to come. Tippi Hedren stars as an upper-class socialite who develops a crush on a man (Rod Taylor) she meets in a pet shop. She pursues him to his home in a small waterfront town. Soon after her arrival, the local bird population begins to show some very strange behavior. The bird mayhem is very creepy and at times horrific. The Birds plays on our fears of nature and its unpredictability. Using the relative benign common bird as a “monster” was a brilliant move. The special effects, though dated, hold up better than one might expect.

While the films mentioned above are usually considered undisputed classics, there are several other underrated gems in this set. One of my favorites is Rope (1948). It might be best known for its unique technique of using 10 long, unbroken takes to tell the story in real-time. That unusual element aside, the story itself is a well spun adaption of the 1929 stage play of the same name. Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) are two young men who think they have staged the perfect crime. In the very opening sequence of the film they are shown murdering another young man, who we learn is their friend David. They arrogantly hold a dinner party with the body hidden in a chest right in their living room. The film is subversive in its depiction of the callousness of the two murderers. Brandon in particular is very proud of his actions, believing his superior intellect gives him the right to decide who lives and dies. It’s a theory he learned from his prep-school headmaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), also an invited dinner guest. Things come to a head when Cadell begins to suspect Brandon and Phillip may have committed an immoral act.

Among the other lesser-known gems in the set are Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Marnie (1964), The Man Who Knew Too Much (a 1956 remake of Hitchcock’s own 1934 film), and Frenzy (1972). Shadow of a Doubt has always stood out to me because of the relatability of the family situation depicted. Charlie (Teresa Wright) is a teenage girl who has always looked up to her uncle, also named Charlie (Joseph Cotten). She’s devastated when she begins to suspect he’s not the man she thought he was. This story kind of sneaks up on you, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the teenage Charlie’s loss of someone she loved. Marnie stars Tippi Hedren in the title role, along with Sean Connery. Marnie is a thief with an irrational fear of men. When she marries a rich businessman (Connery), dark secrets from her past threaten to unravel their relationship. Marnie is an intriguing psychological thriller that isn’t afraid to explore some dark themes.

The remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much stars James Stewart (clearly a Hitchcock favorite) and Doris Day as a vacationing couple who are unwittingly told about a political assassination that’s in the works. The couple’s son is kidnapped in order to keep them from going to the authorities. It’s an enjoyable film, with fine performances from Stewart and Day, whose performance of the Oscar-winning song “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” is featured in the film.

Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy is notable because of the influence of modern filmmaking on Hitchcock’s style. It’s also Hitchcock’s only film to earn an R rating (the MPAA ratings system only came to be in 1968). This is a sort of a slasher film about a serial killer terrorizing the streets of London. The killer doesn’t actually slash his victims; he strangles them with a necktie after raping them. The film has decidedly more explicit themes than some of his earlier work. Unfortunately, some of his typically creative storytelling is sacrificed in favor of a more conventional approach to a thriller.

Rounding out the set are five films that vary in terms of entertainment value and are more likely to be embraced more exclusively by Hitchcock diehards. These films aren’t as memorable, often somewhat lacking in storytelling craft. Saboteur (1942) gets off to a good start with the fiery death of a man at a factory. His best friend (Robert Cummings) is framed for the murder and sets off on a quest to clear his name. Unfortunately, the plot is not all that exciting and the motivations of the bad guys are too general. They want to cause harm to the United States, and gain power, by blowing stuff up. The film lacks the cleverness of Hitchcock’s best work.  

Torn Curtain (1966) is a political thriller starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Despite its intriguing cast, the film is forgettable, offering up very little intrigue in its Cold War storyline. Topaz (1969) also centers on the Cold War. Unlike Torn Curtain’s backdrop of a Germany divided by the Berlin wall, Topaz deals with Russian spies. It comes off like Hitchcock’s version of a James Bond thriller, except its ensemble cast was lacking a central character with the charisma of a Bond-type figure. At 143 minutes, the film feels bloated and is missing the taut, can’t-stop-watching appeal of Hitchcock at his finest.

Finally there’s The Trouble with Harry (1955) and Family Plot (1976). Both films delve into the less-explored comedic side of Hitchcock. They’re more or less black comedies that deal with murder and death. The more enjoyable of the two (by far) is Harry, in which the residents of a small town find a dead body and can’t seem to agree on what to do with it. They also can’t seem to agree on whether there is a murderer in their midst. Shirley MacLaine and Jerry Mathers both appear in their first film roles. Family Plot centers on a fake psychic (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) who attempt to find the long-lost nephew of a wealthy old woman. The couple is in it for the money, but they soon find the nephew may be up to more no good than they are. This was Hitchcock’s final film and it doesn’t make a very good epitaph.

As for the visual presentation of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, while the pluses generally outweigh the negatives, it’s hard not to feel like many of these films will eventually be spruced up for future standalone releases. Surprisingly, the best-looking film in the set is the one that’s been available on Blu-ray since 2009, North By Northwest. Warner clearly spent some time restoring that film in a way that Universal simply hasn’t done for most of the other 14 films collected here. The biggest problem, far and away, is the abundance of print flaws that plague many of the films. The Man Who Knew Too Much is the most obvious victim of this, saddled with a transfer that is just plain terrible. If the tons of white and black specs, blotches, and fine lines weren’t enough, the colors are inconsistent and badly faded.

With those two setting the best and worst standards, a very wide range is covered by the others. The earliest films are among the best looking. Both Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt benefit from strong transfers and relatively clean source prints. Both films were shot by cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine and the detail in his work is well represented. Valentine was joined by William V. Skall for the earliest color film, Rope, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag, with an overall soft look.

Rear Window is the set’s first widescreen presentation (framed at 1.66:1) and it looks good, but not flawless. The many white specs don’t make it entirely difficult to enjoy the positives—which include greatly enhanced clarity and stronger detail than ever before—but I couldn’t ignore those flaws. The richness of the colors is probably this transfer’s greatest asset. Anyone who saw the already impressive standard DVD is bound to be wowed by the vividness of the colors.

The Trouble with Harry may by minor Hitchcock, but it’s a major visual triumph. This is the first film in the set framed at 1.85:1. The outdoor scenes that are so frequent throughout the film are breathtaking, with the fall foliage looking incredibly vivid. Skin tones are realistic, not prone to the artificiality of some color films of the era. The print is not without a few white specs here and there, but they appear infrequently. This transfer is a pleasure to look at. As for Vertigo, though it’s not perfect, I’m happy to say it’s closer to Rear Window than The Man Who Knew Too Much. The image often appears to be slightly too high contrast, with a mildly blown-out look that results in less detail than I would’ve liked. Then again, many of the outdoor shots have an inherently hazy look that contributes to this. The main issue here is those nagging print flaws.

The Birds (1963) is wildly inconsistent in terms of visuals, but it’s hard to say how much of that is simply due to the source elements. The many rear-screen projection shots look pretty rough—noisy and largely lacking in detail. The on-location outdoor shots are much sharper, often transcending the usually dated look of the era.

For whatever reasons, the later films in this set have some of the weakest transfers. Marnie has startlingly prominent grain. It’s so heavy that it looks like visual noise. Maybe the tech department was caught between a rock and a hard place. People don’t generally like excessive DNR, but this is an overly grainy picture and probably should look far better than this. Torn Curtain (1966) looks better than Marnie, but it’s no revelation. The grain is present but not as heavily as its predecessor. Detail is far from what we’ve come to expect, even from films of the ‘60s. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, minor print flaws abound in both.

Frenzy presents the other side of the coin. DNR seems to have been applied liberally, resulting in an oddly smooth, flattened image. While it’s missing grain, it’s also missing detail. Family Plot (1976) is the other worst-looking transfer here. A few of the outdoor scenes look reasonably on par with the other latter-era films. But print flaws are more prominent than ever, detail is almost totally absent throughout, and the whole thing is noisy (almost pixilated in places). Darker scenes are almost totally lacking in detail of any kind.

From an audio standpoint, the collection is far more consistent. An impressively immersive 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix accompanies North by Northwest. Psycho already had a DTS-HD MA mix on its standalone Blu-ray and, while not as striking as the mix on Northwest, it’s effective. The only new surround mix is a very strong 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack for Vertigo. It makes the most of Bernard Herrmann’s classic score and also makes good use of the rear speakers.

All of the rest of the films are presented in DTS-HD 2.0 mono. Without any significant exceptions, these are clean tracks that feature clear, intelligible dialogue and a good balance of music and effects. On the negative end of the spectrum, Rope has some volume inconsistencies (and a few moments where ambiance seems to disappear, possibly a part of the original sound design). But for the most part, these mono soundtracks are perfectly acceptable and don’t have any problems such as distortion, clicks, or pops.

Special features are, with one minor exception, all carried over from the standard DVD releases. The one new Blu-ray exclusive is a 14-minute featurette on The Birds called “Hitchock’s Monster Movie.” It’s kind of a cool piece that puts the film in context with the horror films that came before, but it’s also little more than an advertisement for other Universal monster movies. Each film in the set has, at the very least, a previously available featurette (usually about a half hour, but sometimes considerably longer), still gallery, and trailer. Much longer pieces, with a variety of additional shorter features, are included on Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds.

There are a few analytical commentaries (including one from a 2008 DVD by director William Friedkin on Vertigo) and a few neat little bonuses, like alternate endings for Topaz and unreleased score segments by Bernard Herrmann on Torn Curtain (who was replaced by John Addison). All in all, there is a lot of informative stuff here that is of great interest, especially to those who haven’t seen it before. But along with the sometimes shoddy transfers, the lack of brand new features shows Universal wasn’t trying too hard with this set.

In closing, I feel I need to make mention of the packaging. Housed inside a sturdy box is a “book” in which each “page” is a sleeve that holds one disc. While attractive to look at, I question whether the binding of this book will hold up over time. As for the sleeves, I’ve already transferred each of the 15 discs into individual spare cases. Those who dislike sliding discs in and out of sleeves (these are not too tight, at least) will want to do the same in order to avoid scuffing. For such an expensive set, it’s too bad Universal didn’t think these movies were worth plastic cases.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.