Let’s start with the two biggest titles in the collection, which have a life outside thiscollection. North by Northwest is arguably Hitchcock’s greatest exercise in sheer roller-coaster thriller entertainment. As in so many of the director’s films, an insane chain of eventsis set in motion by the smallest of actions, in this case Cary Grant signalling a bell boy just asthe latter is calling out a name. Grant is thus misidentified by the villains, and he is suddenlyrunning fo… his life with no idea why people are trying to kill him. The crop-duster scene is oneof the most famous in all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre.
Strangers on a Train is considerably darker, with the unfortunate Farley Grangerfalling into the clutches of Robert Walker. Granger has a wife who won’t agree to a divorce.Walker wants his father offed. Walker proposes that each man commit the other’s murder, thuseliminating motive. Granger refuses, but only after Walker has already killed his wife. The noosecloses tight… The suspense and flair are magnificent, and there are some incredible set pieceshere too, most notably a murder seen through the victim’s fallen eyeglasses.
The releases new to this collection are a mixture of the big titles and, relatively speaking, theobscure. The Wrong Man is probably the hardest slogging of the bunch, with HenryFonda as a man unjustly accused of the crimes committed by a lookalike, and Vera Miles as hiswife driven to a nervous breakdown by the ordeal. This is Hitchcock as a concerned filmmaker,basing the film on a real case. But this mode is not the master’s primary strength.
If you want something lighter, there’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the only non-mystery/thriller of the bunch. Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery discover that they werenever legally married, and so the courtship begins anew in what is an out-and-out screwballcomedy.
Hitch returns to the theme of the accused innocent man for the third time in this collectionwith I Confess. Shot in Quebec City, and making full use of the setting, this is the story ofCatholic Priest Montgomery Clift, who cannot clear himself of murder charges without violatingthe sacred seal of the confessional. Gorgeously photographed, the film is entirely interesting, butlacks the extra verve, black humour and perversity that graces something like Strangers on aTrain.
Stage Fright has Jane Wyman trying to clear friend Richard Todd of murder chargesby pretending to be a maid and inserting herself into the household of actress Marlene Dietrich,believing her to be the actual killer. This is mystery in a lighter vein. Though Wyman’s naiveteoften makes her difficult to root for, Alistair Sim’s turn as her father is a comic delight andhugely engaging. In Dietrich, we have an ice-blonde who gazes back at Hitch’s camera with asmuch predatory force as it looks at her.
Dial M for Murder (recently pointlessly remade as A Perfect Murder) wasoriginally released in 3-D. The DVD is in 2-D, but this is not a film that would have really playedup the stereoscopic gimmick in the first place. Ray Milland plots the murder of Grace Kelly, andthe closet-drama plays out with maximum suspense. Milland’s suave urbanity is the perfect meshwith Hitchcock’s cool sadism.
George Sanders is another actor whose cool, acid delivery seems to have been tailor-madefor Hitchcock, and though his role is a supporting one in Foreign Correspondent, it is amemorable one. Here, American reporter Joel McCrae is sent to Europe on the eve of WWII, andis caught up in a frantic plot involving the kidnapping of a Dutch diplomat. This film featuresone of the most perfect examples of Hitchcock’s “McGuffin” (the something-or-other that isunimportant in and of itself, but serves to motivate the plot). We never find out exactly what thismysterious treaty clause is that has everyone so exercised, but that doesn’t matter. What we haveis a marvellous adventure/suspense film, that has lost none of its pace and suspense after 64years.
Finally, Suspicion sees Joan Fontaine marry Cary Grant, only to gradually suspectthat he might be trying to kill her. The anxiety is high and the ambiguity of Grant’s actions wellhandled (and this is the film with the memorable glowing glass of milk), but the full power ofHitchcock’s vision was muffled by the studio-imposed ending.
All of the features except for the previously-released North by Northwest (whichcame out in 2000) are presented in the original mono. The audio is clean, clear and generallyalmost completely devoid of hiss. The 5.1 track on North by Northwest does full justiceto Bernard Herrmann’s score, and while there is very little surround otherwise, there are nopainful distortions and misapplication of surround either.
A real range of picture quality here. North by Northwest is the youngest film here(1959), and its print is in the best conditions, with excellent colours, a sharp, 1.85:1 anamorphicwidescreen picture and no grain. The other films are all B&W and (except for The WrongMan) fullscreen, which is their original format. The images are all sharp, and the B&W looksmarvellous. What distinguishes one disc from the next is the level of grain and print damage.Most look very good, but the notable exception is Stage Fright, which is very grainy, andhas some bad print damage and speckling during its climax. Made 10 years later than Foreign Correspondent, Stage Fright actually looks 10 years older. The Wrong Man also suffers from a high level of grain.
I won’t belabour the extras on North by Northwest, since the disc has been on themarket for so long. With its commentary track by writer Ernest Lehman, documentary,production stills and isolated soundtrack, it and Strangers on a Train have the mostfeatures. The latter, a double-disc set, has a commentary track which is a collection of remarks(both general and scene specific) by scholars, colleagues, family members, and even someexcerpts of an interview Peter Bogdanovich conducted with Hitchcock. The film is alsopresented in the theatrical and preview versions, with the preview version running a couple ofminutes longer and beefing up the homoerotic subtext. There is a vintage newsreel of Hitchcockon a historical visit (video only). There are three featurettes: “The Hitchcocks on Hitch,”“Strangers on a Train: The Victim’s POV” (dealing with the glasses scene) and “Strangers on aTrain: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan” (who, from recent evidence, should learn fromhis idol that there is more to a film than a twist ending). Then there’s the documentary, whichbrings me to the common features.
All of the discs come with a documentary, running twenty minutes to half an hour, whichgoes into the making of the respective film and its place within the context of Hitchcock’s lifeand career. These are solid and interesting efforts, with good contributions from PeterBogdanovich, author Bill Krohn, surviving cast members, and so on. The original theatricaltrailers are also present. The menus, generally speaking, have scored main screens. Theexceptions are the animated and scored intro and main screen for North by Northwest,and the basic menu on Strangers on a Train.
There is no way that any one box set could be a perfect best-of when the subject has had asillustrious a career as Hitchcock’s. Nonetheless, this is bloody marvellous stuff. In the SignatureCollection series, this may not be quite as perfect a selection as the Bogart box (though there areNINE movies here), but it is considerably better than the Cary Grant set.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentaries
- Behind-the-Scenes Documentaries
- North by Northwest and Stangers on a Train Featurettes
- Theatrical Trailers