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.