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Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection DVD Review

Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection

June 1, 2005

Director: Alfred Hitchcock,
Starring: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, ,

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DVD Review

The newly released Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection contains nine of the Master of Suspense’s movies from 1940 to 1959. It’s an intriguing mix of the famous (North by Northwest) and the underrated (Mr. and Mrs. Smith). All of the films in the set range from Hitchcock’s early American efforts to when he had fully hit his stride in the ‘50s. The mix of genres is also varied, from his trademark thrillers (Strangers on a Train) to an uncharacteristic foray into screwball comedy (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) to hard-hitting drama (I Confess).

The set kicks things off with Foreign Correspondent (1940). Mr. Jones (McCrea) is a reporter sent to Europe to cover the impending war for the New York Globe newspaper. He is instructed to get an interview with Van Meer, head of affairs for Holland and a key lynchpin to maintaining peace in Europe. This film has been seen as Hitchcock’s attempt to get the United States into the war and contains such memorable sequences as an assassination in broad daylight in the rain. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he follows this scene with an exciting chase sequence through the streets of Holland that culminates in a showdown in a run-down windmill.

Hitchcock shifted gears significantly with Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), a screwball comedy about a married couple (Lombard and Montgomery) who find out that they were never legally married! Hitchcock did this movie as a favour to actress Carole Lombard and the results are a top notch comedy that proved he was more than just the Master of Suspense.

Suspicion (1941) features Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine), a beautiful and wealthy woman who falls in love with and marries handsome playboy Johnny Aysgarth (Grant). She soon suspects that Johnny may be a murderer and that she may be his next victim. Grant does an excellent job of being charming but with a darker nature lurking just under the surface of his seemingly nice exterior.

Stage Fright (1950) is a more traditional Hitchcockian thriller as a detective (Wilding) investigates a murder backstage of a theatre and falls in love with one of the production’s actresses (Wyman). Marlene Dietrich makes a memorable appearance as a singer who vamps it up with a sexy, slow musical number.

One of the highlights of the set is a 2-DVD special edition of Strangers on a Train (1951) which you may remember being paid tribute to in Danny DeVito’s comedy, Throw Momma From the Train (1987). Guy Haines (Granger) is a wealthy tennis pro who meets a mysterious, charismatic man on a train (Walker). They get to talking and Guy tells the man—Bruno—that he is having trouble divorcing his wife. Bruno hates his father and proposes the perfect murder: he will kill Guy’s wife and the tennis player will kill his father. Criss cross. That way each man will have no motive or apparent connection to their respective murders. At first, Guy doesn’t take Bruno all that seriously but when his wife refuses to get a divorce and threatens to blackmail him, he starts considering Bruno’s proposal more seriously.

Robert Walker is perfectly cast as the insidiously charming Bruno who is clearly insane but exudes such fascinating malevolent charisma—especially in the scene where he stalks Guy’s wife at the carnival. Her death is one of Hitchcock’s most masterful, expertly choreographed murder scenes as it is shown reflected in her fallen spectacles.

Hitchcock shifted gears yet again with I Confess (1953), an intense drama about a priest (Clift) who hears a killer’s confession but is bound by his profession to keep silent, even when eyewitness accounts suggest that he might be the killer and evidence points in his direction. This is a classic wronged man movie with a heartfelt and powerful performance by Montgomery Clift.

The classic murder mystery is essayed in the next movie, Dial M for Murder (1954). It’s a tangled romantic triangle with Margot (Kelly) married but in love with a mystery writer (Cummings). Her husband catches wind of this and designs the perfect murder that, not surprisingly, does not go as planned. Originally shot in 3D, the film still holds up today because Hitchcock wisely did not rely on the gimmicky nature of 3D to sell the movie and stayed true to his thriller aesthetic.

Like I Confess, The Wrong Man (1956) explores one of the legendary filmmaker’s favourite themes: the falsely accused innocent man. Based on an actual event, New York musician and everyman, Manny Balestrero (Fonda) has his daily routine disrupted when he is arrested and wrongly accused of murder. It not only shatters his life but drives his wife (Miles) insane. He fights desperately to clear his name and restore his world.

Rounding out the set is the classic thriller, North by Northwest (1959). Roger Thornhill (Grant) is a busy New York advertising executive who is mistaken for someone else by two thugs who kidnap him and take him to the Townsend estate. He meets a powerful man (Mason) who proceeds to get him drunk and tries to kill him, making it look like an automobile accident. Thornhill narrowly escapes and, understandably upset, decides to find out who these men were really trying to kill. His investigation takes him to the headquarters of the United Nations, Chicago (where the film’s iconic crop-duster chase sequence occurs) and climaxes on the faces of Mount Rushmore.

Big budget thrillers really don’t get any better than this. With the always suave and entertaining Cary Grant along for the ride as the wronged man up against the equally slick James Mason (also look for Martin Landau in a memorable role), you’ve got the makings for a very entertaining ride. It doesn’t hurt that Hitchcock also had the legendary Bernard Herrmann orchestrate the score and even opens the film with Saul Bass’ trademark stylish credit sequence. Brilliant.

Special Features:

All the DVDs include Making Of featurettes with such notables as Hitchcock’s daughter, Pat, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and various film historians (like Robert Osbourne) talk about the significance of each movie and how they came to be. Also included are theatrical trailers for each movie as well.

Not surprisingly, the two most popular films of the set, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest get the deluxe treatment in terms of extras.

The first disc of Strangers on a Train includes an audio commentary with several participants, most notably Bogdanovich interviewing Hitchcock about the movie back in the day and a Patricia Highsmith biographer who talks at length about the origins of the novel and its relation to the movie. Bogdanovich also talks about how Robert Walker was known for his nice guy roles up until this film and how Hitch cast him wonderfully against type.

The second disc features the bulk of the extras, including a preview version of the movie that was discovered in 1991 and runs two minutes longer. “Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic” is an excellent 36-minute documentary that looks at the Hitchcockian themes prevalent in this movie: the wrong man and the flawed hero and villain tainted with guilt. The screenplay’s troubled past is examined—at one point Hitch started filming without a finished script, a practice he rarely did. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan shows up in his own featurette where he gushes about the movie and explains why it is one of his favourite films. “The Victim’s P.O.V.” is a seven-minute interview with Kasey Rogers who played Miriam in the film. She talks about how she got the role and her experiences working on the movie. “The Hitchcocks on Hitch” is an 11-minute look at the director’s personal life with nice vintage home movie footage of the man spending quality time with his family that shows a warm, playful side to the filmmaker. Finally, there is “Alfred Hitchcock’s Historical Meeting,” silent footage of the director meeting someone and then getting on a train (?).

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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