I think I see your problem. You have this list. It’s a list of people you need/want to buy a Christmas gift for. The trouble is that they’re into home theatre, and you don’t know Star Trek from Star Wars. You couldn’t tell a Wolf Man from a Wolverine. And you always thought that Paranormal Activity was something too kinky to talk about. Fortunately, Upcomingdiscs has come to the rescue every Christmas with our Gift Guide Spotlights. Keep checking back to see more recommendations for your holiday shopping. These gift guides ARE NOT paid advertisements. We take no money to publish them. With conditions as they are, shopping won’t be easy this season. The nice thing about discs is that they’re so easy to get from places like Amazon that you can give a great gift and stay perfectly safe while you do it. First up on Black Friday is one of the best gift sets we’ve ever run into here at Upcomingdiscs. Universal has started to release their extensive Hitchcock collection on 4K. Hitch was also a master of lighting and cinematography, and it comes through quite nicely with these new 4K transfers of four of his classic films. You’re going to get a lot of thanks for giving this one.
“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!”
He has been called the Master of Suspense, and for good reason. Alfred Hitchcock had them jumping in their seats long before any of the modern horror films. He invented the political thriller and the slasher film. In a day and age when censors limited much of what you could and could not show on film, and often in black & white, Alfred Hitchcock knew how to reach those baser instincts and keep theatre-goers on the edge of their seats. Can you imagine that at one time it was forbidden to show a toilet on screen? Hitch did it for the first time ever in Psycho. Today that kind of thing seems silly to all of us. It’s the kind of restricted world in which Hitch had to work, but he made it work and has been the inspiration for many of the filmmakers that you admire today like Martin Scorsese and even John Landis. Watching a Hitchcock film is like taking a master class in filmmaking itself. When he had dominated the large screen, he even tackled our television screens and became the first of the celebrity filmmakers by hosting a weekly suspenseful half hour or hour show for several years. His show would use some of the best writers, from Winnie The Pooh’s A. A. Milne to sci-fi great Ray Bradbury. His jovial form and gallows humor became a staple on both television and the movie houses across the world. Today iconic filmmakers are discovering television and the potential it has always had. Heck. Hitch was bringing big screen cinematography and storytelling to the little screen since the 1950’s. That large frame has left behind even larger footprints for others to follow. Just in time for the holidays, Universal Pictures has remastered four of the Master’s best films and put them out in long-overdue UHD in 4K. This release is going to be one of the most sought-after gift sets this holiday, and there isn’t a film lover alive (or dead for that matter) who wouldn’t be frightfully thankful to see this collection under their tree. It won’t make it on to their shelves until after they’ve had a peek at what’s inside. Here’s what they’ll find.
“It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”
The year is 1959; Hitchcock exits the premiere of his latest film, North by Northwest starring Cary Grant; on his arm is his wife and his most loyal supporter, Alma Reville (Mirren). The reporters outside rave about his genius, and he is relishing it until one question changes everything: Is it time to hang it up?
This question weighed heavily on Hitchcock; was he past his prime? He had become disillusioned in recent years, simply going through the motions when it came to his work; he needed something new and fresh, something that was going to return the spark to his work. It was then by either chance or fate that he came across the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch, a novel loosely inspired by the crimes of notorious Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein.
Hitchcock announces this as his next project and is met with an onslaught of resistance from the press and the studio, as well as the MPPC. Despite this, Hitchcock remained determined to make the film, opting to finance the film himself and risking everything; his house, his reputation, even his marriage on one roll of the dice. What he delivered changed filmmaking forever.
Psycho broke all of the rules. He casts A-lister Janet Leigh as the film’s female star, only to have her brutally killed 20 minutes into the film. No one expects the big star to die so suddenly. The shower scene has often been imitated but never duplicated. He even fooled the censors who were sure there was forbidden nudity in the scene. But watch it frame by frame and you’ll never find a full nude shot. But Hitch makes you sure that you did. He took advantage of the black & white medium where he could use Hershey’s chocolate syrup for blood, because while it had none of the color of blood, it had just the right consistency going down the shower drain.
The star of the film was an unknown at the time named Anthony Perkins. He played the disturbed killer perfectly. The “just-off” demeanor and mother complex perfectly sets up the iconic reveal that Norman Bates was a little too close to his mother.
The film saw several sequels, none authorized by Hitch, and even a television series that brought us to the young life of Norman Bates. None of these efforts has ever come close to the original film, and that film never looked better than it does in this collection. The price is worth it for this film alone. But there’s more.
Rear Window (1954)
“Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”
If any of Hitch’s films comes close to Psycho in imitations, it has to be Rear Window. Look at any of the voyeuristic films of the last 60 years and you’ll see traces of Rear Window. It’s one of the simplest plots Hitch ever filmed and remains one of the more clever and suspenseful. Jeffries is an action photographer who ended up getting badly injured on his last assignment. He’s stuck at home with a broken leg and not able to feed his desire for the action in which he thrives. His somewhat girlfriend Lisa dotes on him and hopes to use his immobility to work her charms a bit deeper on the reluctant lover. He spends his days watching the lives of his fellow tenement residents through their often-open windows. He takes some joy in creating stories to go along with the lives he’s catching in glimpses. The game turns serious when he thinks a neighbor, played by Raymond Burr, has killed his wife. Of course, no one will believe him, and he ends up endangering Lisa’s life in his manic attempts to prove his theory correct.
This film would have bogged down on its own simplicity if Hitch hadn’t put together the perfect couple. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly bring every mundane bit of conversation to life. They filled the large screens of yesteryear so perfectly that the film survives a lengthy setup just because of how compelling these two characters become. Stewart has the kind of delivery that you can’t image anyone wouldn’t believe. Because of his film history and trademark gentility, how could Jeffries tell a lie? Of course, he is right, but when he takes matters into his own hands, the solution appears to be spiraling out of control.
Here Hitch uses very limited locations and relies completely on the performances of his leads. There’s little else he could do but get out of their way and hope that the audience would remain engaged long enough to get to the suspense. They did, and you can see mirrors of this film in at least 1000 other films and television episodes.
“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”
Jimmy Stewart’s back, and if Rear Window was simplicity itself, Vertigo just might be the most complicated of Hitch’s plots. Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, who was forced into retirement by the police department. His partner was killed because Scottie froze when the chase led to a high location and he came down with vertigo. He’s feeling kind of washed up until a friend asks for a big favor. His wife has been making strange trips and acting strangely. He wants Scottie to follow her and try to find out what’s going on. He does follow her for several days until one day she throws herself into the surf at Golden Gate Park. He takes her home and doesn’t reveal why he was there. The two make a connection, and as time goes on, Madeleine begins to appear to believe she is a reincarnated ghost of a girl who died 100 years ago of tragic circumstances. It’s all leading to another attempt to kill herself, this time from the high steeple at a convent where Scottie is once again frozen by his vertigo. It would seem that was the end of the story.
Later in his guilt and funk, he runs into a girl on the street who reminds him of Madeleine. Judy Barton is reluctant at first but begins to allow Scottie to change her hair and looks so that she’s the splitting image of Madeleine. Of course he discovers that he was used as a patsy by his friend, and Judy just might be Madeleine.
The film is a slow burner. We spend a lot of time watching Scottie watch Madeleine. The small clues start to add up, but it’s interesting to watch these characters play a kind of dance throughout the day. This time Stewart is matched with Kim Novak, who is equal to his performance. They do make an intriguing couple, but there is none of the comfortableness Stewart had with Grace Kelly. This relationship is more an obsession than a romance, and Hitch manages to blur all of those lines. For me it always worked better as a character study of Stewart’s Scottie, with Novak the foil to his attempt as dignity in light of his guilt and now growing notoriety when it becomes known two deaths could have been avoided if Stewart hadn’t frozen. Stewart delivers some of the best emotional stuff of his career during these moments he’s trying to fight his fear.
Vertigo owes its signature moments to the superb cinematography of Robert Burks and the artful editing of George Tomasini. The San Francisco location add the perfect atmosphere to the film and make it one of Hitch’s more unconventional films and like little he’s done before or since.
The Birds (1963)
“I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”
This is likely one of my least-favorite Hitchcock films. It’s one of his most popular anyway. The Birds is important because it was the first of its kind once again. Films like Jaws would never have happened if Hitch hadn’t once again led the way.
It starts in a pet shop where Melanie Daniels has an awkward meeting with Mitch Brenner. Both are playing a little of a practical joke on the other over some birds the shop happens to be out of. Melanie is determined to have the upper hand, so she orders the lovebirds he talked about and sneaks away to his coastal hideaway home to deliver the birds by breaking into the house and leaving them with a note for his young daughter. The tricks end in her feeling something for the family, but as the relationship grows, so does the wild bird population there.
We all know what happens. The birds start to go crazy. They swarm and kill many of the locals, causing others to shelter behind boarded up windows and doors. Some residents blame Melanie because the attacks appear to coincide with her rather sneaky arrival.
Again. I’ve never been that fond of the film. Here Hitch relies more on f/x than he usually would, and those bird images don’t quite hold up today, particularly in 4K. The chemistry between Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren just never measures up to the wonderful relationships that populate most of Hitchcock’s classics. This one holds up because of some shock value and the place it holds in the nature goes crazy cinema history. Otherwise it’s one of Hitch’s least efforts.
All of these films were shot on 35mm film. That means they are native 4K. Universal does a wonderful job here, and you’re going to get sucked into these movies. Christmas is on a Friday this year. Even if you have to work, blow it off. Settle down for a little Hitch mental time off. “Why don’t you call your boss and tell him you’re taking the rest of the afternoon off? It’s Friday anyway, and hot.”