A small piece of my childhood arrived on my doorstep the day Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection was delivered to my house. It’s a limited edition Blu-ray box set that contains 15 of Alfred Hitchcock’s most iconic films, 13 of which have never been released on Blu-ray. If there is one auteur whose work I’ve studied from the time I fell in love with cinema up to the present day it’s Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. My adoration of the British director’s films came about thanks to my father, the man responsible for first introducing me to most of the movies in this collection.
As I’ve recounted on Popdose a few times, my family won a VCR in the early 80’s, approximately a year before the VHS boom swept the nation. At the time of the machine’s arrival into our home, there were only two video rental operations in the city I grew up in, North Olmsted, Ohio. We gravitated to First Run Video, near the old Gold Circle department store, and became regulars. On the weekends, my best friend Matt and I would rent whatever current blood fest Fangoria magazine recommended. My father was tolerant of these selections, as long as I sat with him and watched one of the movies rented. This is how I first saw many Marx Brothers classics, many of the important films from the 70’s, and the great works of Alfred Hitchcock.
Every Hitchcock film that Dad brought home is included in The Masterpiece Collection. They’ve all been restored from high quality film elements for pristine hi-def picture and sound. What are the films I watched with my father? Here’s a rundown:
Psycho (1960) Hitchcock’s shocking film was one of the first we watched together, probably because it fit seamlessly with my horror obsessed young mind. Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh star in this film that the director shot in black and white with his TV show crew (to be cost efficient) and features the most notorious shower scene in film history. The Blu-ray for this release is loaded with extras, including making-of featurettes, commentary and excerpts from the famous Hitchcock-Francois Truffaut interview.
The Birds (1963) After watching Psycho, Dad brought home The Birds home. Tippi Hedren stars in this horror film about a seaside town terrorized by thousands of angry birds. The end of this movie still gives me the creeps. After holing up in a house and fending off an all-out assault by the birds, Hedren and her co-stars, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy and Veronica Cartwright, must carefully walk past hundreds of birds to get to their car. The creatures sit patiently, but you don’t know whether they’re going to attack. The Birds has received a complete overhaul and it’s a great restoration. A couple of years ago I attended a screening of the film hosted by Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osborne and the brutally honest Ms. Hedren. That night, the print we watched was full of scratches and dust. So glad to see it restored. This Bul-ray is also full of extras, including a new featurette, “The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie.”
Rear Window (1954) This one remains one of my favorites of all time. James Stewart is a photojournalist stuck inside his apartment, nursing a severely broken leg. He’s one week from getting the cast off and it couldn’t come sooner. His only escape from the apartment has been the view out his rear window that looks out to the courtyard of his complex. From his perch he’s spied on his neighbors and, in a way, gotten to know them. When Stewart suspects that one his neighbors (played by Raymond Burr) may have murdered his wife, he tries to bring the man to justice. Helping him is his stunning girlfriend, played by the most beautiful actress in screen history, Grace Kelly. Rear Window is one of the most brilliant thrillers ever produced and it is one of two Hitchcock films that I can watch no matter what mood I’m in. Not only did it fortify my admiration for Hitchcock’s work, but it began my lifelong infatuation with the late Grace Kelly.
After these first three masterpieces, my dad brought home some of Hitchcock’s lesser appreciated films to continue our education of the Master of Suspense. Those films included:
Rope (1948) James Stewart stars as a teacher who believes that two of his students have used his intellectual theories as justification for a brutal murder. The entire film takes place in one room, Hitchcock’s attempt to create tension in a confined place. More fascinating is the director’s choice to have the film appear to have been one long camera take, an impossible task for a feature length movie before the digital age because film magazines only allowed for eight minutes of film. Through clever cuts and actor moves, Hitchcock pulls off his illusion.
The Trouble with Harry (1955) In an outward attempt at comedy, this isn’t one of Hitch’s best movies. It does have some quirky, fun moments, but it’s more noteworthy for being Shirley MacLaine’s first movie than anything else.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Another collaboration between Hitchcock and Stewart. In this remake of Hitchcock’s original film from 1934, Stewart and Doris Day co-star as a vacationing American couple who accidentally become involved in an international assassination plot. They must take matters into their own hands when their son is kidnapped. Besides being a successful remake of the older film, The Man Who Knew Too Much also features Day singing the famous song, “Que Sera, Sera,” which the singer dismissed as childish when she first heard it. It later became the biggest hit of her musical career.
Marnie (1964) Tippi Hedren’s second and final collaboration with Hitchcock, this is a nifty little film about a compulsive liar and thief (Hedren) who marries the very man she intends to rob. That man is played by then James Bond, Sean Connery.
Of the lesser known films, my favorite is Torn Curtain (1966). In the tense, espionage thriller, Paul Newman, as cool as ever, portrays a physicist and rocket scientist who goes undercover to get secrets for the U.S. Government. Thing is, no one knows he’s undercover, not even his assistant/fiancé, played by Julie Andrews. Both stars are superb, especially Andrews, who sheds all the “goodness” of her previous role in The Sound of Music (1965) to play a conflicted and fiercely loyal woman. Torn Curtain also has one of the most gut wrenching murder scenes you’ll ever see. This film isn’t considered one of Hitchcock’s best, but because it’s a collaboration between three of my favorite stars (Hitchcock, Newman and Andrews) it holds a place in my heart.
By mid-high school, I was no longer hanging out with my dad watching movies. Extracurricular activities, socializing and part time jobs kept me out of the house. When I did rent a movie my tastes veered toward cult films and mainstream blockbusters rather than the classics. However, the summer I graduated high school I watched what I consider to be Hitchcock’s best and most enjoyable film: 1959’s North by Northwest.
Cary Grant stars as a New York businessman mistakenly identified as a secret agent. His once routine life, complete with a revolving door of girls and a disproving mother, comes unhinged. Grant races around the country trying to locate the mystery man and stay alive. Along the way he’s chased by a crop duster (one of cinema’s greatest action sequences), falls for a secretive beauty played by Eva Marie Saint, and is pursued across Mt. Rushmore. Written by the late Ernest Lehman (whose previously recorded feature commentary is on the Blu-ray) and featuring one of composer Bernard Herrmann’s greatest film scores, North by Northwest is the prototype of all modern action movies. If only all modern action movies were as well made and exciting as North by Northwest.
Years would pass – college, marriage, a move to Los Angeles – before I returned to the films of Hitchcock. What inspired me to look into his work again was the 1996 theatrical rerelease of Vertigo, originally released in 1958. James Stewart, in his last film with Hitchcock, is a police detective who becomes obsessed with a blonde woman he rescues from the San Francisco bay (played by Kim Novak). The movie is slow and the tension builds as Stewart’s sanity comes into question and his creepy obsessive behavior becomes uncomfortable to all – the characters in the film and the audience. Many critics and historians rank this as not only Hitchcock’s greatest film, but one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest. The Blu-ray offers a dizzying group of bonus features that offer insight into the film’s original production, as well as the film’s restoration process. The Blu-ray for Vertigo also includes BD Live and Pocket Blu – exclusive interactive experiences that allow you to explore more history about Vertigo and the director himself.
Thanks to my revived interest in Hitchcock, I was quick to record any and all of his films that aired on Turner Classic Movies, the home of classic, uncut movies. It was there that I finally watched Topaz (1969), a thriller starring John Forsythe as a CIA agent who travels to Cuba to investigate rumors of Russian missiles, Frenzy (1972), a murder mystery set in London, and Family Plot (1976), Hitchcock’s final film. Rewatching these last three films on Blu-ray, I became aware of a director whose talents were waning and films that aren’t as entertaining as his peak work.
However, during the 90’s I also saw for the first time, Saboteur from 1942, a wartime thriller starring Robert Cummings as a man falsely accused of sabotage. The film also stars a very young Norman Lloyd as one of the villains and contains a harrowing sequence that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. I also watched Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a tense film about a young woman (Teresa Wright) who suspects that her favorite uncle may be a murderer. Hitchcock cast Joseph Cotton as the uncle and the great actor used all of his acting charm to keep you guessing as to whether he really is a monster, or if those suspicions are just in the young niece’s imagination. Both of these fantastic movies are a part of this luxurious box set, as are all of the ones mentioned in this review. While it took me a long time to discover them, they are the first two in the collection.
Having the opportunity to revisit has been a blessing. Seeing them reminded me that my love of cinema is due in part to my father, as much as it is Alfred Hitchcock. It was because of my dad that I ever saw Rear Window, Psycho and Torn Curtain for the first time, and because of those films I was eager to watch North by Northwest and Vertigo. From this point forward in my life, whenever I pull out one of these Blu-rays, hopefully to share with my daughter or son, I will think of my dad and the times we were entertained, thrilled and delighted while sitting in the family room back in the 1980’s. Moreover, I look forward to his next visit to our house and the chance to revisit some of these masterpieces with him.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection is available now, through Amazon and other stores.