Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

 
In general, the films of Alfred Hitchcock have been fairly well represented on home video. At one time or another, all of his sound-era movies have been available on VHS; however, as the studios and distributors have made their movies available on DVD, gaps have developed in the Hitchcock library. Several of the AWOL titles sat in the Warner Bros. vaults, but now Warner Home Video has dusted off the movie reels and hauled out seven movies that have never previously been available on DVD—Dial M for Murder, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, The Wrong Man, Stage Fright, I Confess, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. In addition, Warner Home Video has prepared a new two-disc set of Strangers on a Train that contains the theatrical release version as well as the preview version. (Hitchcock aficionados will have fun finding the numerous editing differences between the two versions and comparing the different endings.)

These DVD packages have been sweetened with short documentaries that provide insights from historians, biographers, family members, crew members, and actors. The discs are available either separately or in a boxed set called "Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection" in which the package deal is complimented with one previously released DVD title, North by Northwest.

While none of these titles (other than North by Northwest—the one ringer included here to help convince consumers to buy the entire boxed set) carries the clout of Notorious, Spellbound, Rear Window, or Psycho, this set contains some true gems, such as Foreign Correspondent and Strangers on a Train. It also contains less typical Hitchcock material, such as the screwball comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the semi-documentary styled The Wrong Man. These movies represent a good cross section of Hitchcock's American career, from his early American efforts, such as Suspicion, to stylistic experiments, such as Dial M for Murder. While Stage Fright recalls Hitchcock's English films of the '30s, I Confess is immersed in shadows and the ominous imagery of film noir.

The boxed set represents a considerable savings over individual purchases. It carries a suggested retail price of $99.92 (but can be had for less than $75 from some outlets) vs. the $19.97 SRP for each individual title, with the two-disc "special edition" release of Strangers on a Train carrying a higher price tag of $26.99. Or in other words, for the approximate price of five individual titles, you can buy the entire nine-movie boxed set.
 

 Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock's very best films. If it doesn't have quite the reputation of Rear Window or North by Northwest, it's likely because the lead actors haven't the enduring popularity of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, or Grace Kelly—which shouldn't be interpreted as a knock against Strangers stars Farley Granger and Robert Walker, who are both excellent. Granger portrays professional tennis player Guy Haines, who encounters Bruno Anthony (Walker) on a train ride. In this chance encounter, Bruno picks up on Guy's marital dissatisfaction, so he proposes that they swap murders: "You do my murder; I do yours. Your wife, my father, criss cross." Guy is shocked by Bruno's suggestion, but he gallantly fends off Bruno's plan with laughter. However, Bruno misunderstands and goes ahead with his murder.

Walker, who typically played good guy roles, makes an especially dangerous villain because he seems so personable and friendly, but psychotic undercurrents are not far below his surface. He's a momma's boy who behaves like an eight-year-old child. In a crucial scene, he lightheartedly talks about murder to two elderly ladies at a party. He demonstrates for the ladies how easy it is to strangle someone—but in the process he drifts into a murderous trance and his hands clutch the lady's throat in a vice-like grip.

Strangers on a Train is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Hitchcock's film doesn't go as far as Highsmith's novel; Guy doesn't become a murder. But Hitchcock's villain and hero are both profoundly mixed up. As described by Peter Bogdanovich on the documentary that accompanies Strangers on this DVD, Hitchcock gave screenwriter Raymond Chandler (of The Big Sleep fame) a story treatment without dialogue. Chandler apparently didn't understand some of the visuals described in the treatment and therefore his screenwriting effort went somewhat astray. Czenzi Ormonde was brought in to finish the screenplay. When Hitchcock started filming, the movie had no ending. Not until several weeks into filming did Hitchcock come up with the movie's now famous finale—which takes place on an out-of-control merry-go-round.

The disc's documentary provides several insights into the two versions of Strangers. On a previous release from Warner Home Video, these two versions were described as the American version and the British version. Bill Krohn, author of Hitchcock at Work, says the so-called British version was actually a preview version. After the preview, Hitchcock refined the editing and filmed a new comic tag scene for the ending. Both versions of Strangers are included on this two-disc set.

This set includes several other choice extras, such as a short documentary that sheds light on Laura Elliott, who plays Guy's wife, Miriam. She was a contract player at Paramount who Hitchcock borrowed for Strangers. She's wonderfully tawdry as Miriam, especially in the scene where she is accompanied by two suitors to a carnival, while Bruno prowls after her (even following her solo into the Tunnel of Love!). Unfortunately, even though she's superb here, Strangers didn't have much of an effect on her career.

The DVD also includes observations by M. Night Shyamalan (director of The Sixth Sense) and a selection of Hitchcock family films that show the family vacationing, skiing, playing tennis, and cavorting in their backyard. Various commentators appear on the movie's alternative audio track, including Hitchcock himself, who is heard in excerpts from an interview conducted many years before by Peter Bogdanovich.
 

 Dial M for Murder

"When the batteries are running dry, take a hit play and shoot it," Alfred Hitchcock said to Peter Bogdanovich. Instead of opening up the hit play Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock simply shot the play—but he shot it as only Hitchcock could, choosing the right place to place the camera for every moment, knowing where to cut, and when not to cut. Only a couple scenes take place outside of the apartment of Tony and Margot Wendice (Ray Milland and Grace Kelly). Likeable Milland makes Wendice seem like a good guy, but Wendice is plotting to kill Margot, who in turn is fooling around with family friend Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Wendice coerces a military buddy, Charles Swan (Anthony Dawson), into murdering Margot but the plans don't go as planned and Swan ends up with a set of shears in his back, thanks to Margot's quick thinking. Then Wendice must try to cover his role in the murder attempt while the police dig for clues.

Filmed in 3-D, Dial M for Murder wasn't staged like most 3-D movies. Instead of throwing everything not nailed down at the audience, Hitchcock emphasized the illusion of depth by arranging objects in planes before the camera (e.g., bottles of liquor on a cabinet, objects on a desk, a railing, etc.). Only at precise moments did Hitchcock use 3-D to bring objects out of the screen, such as Grace Kelly's hand grabbing for the shears or Ray Milland's hand inserting the incriminating key into the apartment's front door.

Unfortunately, however, we can't experience the 3-D version of Dial M for Murder first hand (although it apparently does indeed exist). We can only make guesses at how the movie appeared on theater screens. Ideally, Warner Bros. would have made the 3-D version available for inclusion in this set. Certainly this alternative version would be more valuable than the preview version of Strangers. But Warner Bros. has only supplied the flat version. To help make up for this omission, the Dial M for Murder DVD comes with a short documentary that explains how the 3-D process affected the production. For example, one of the most interesting revelations concerns a giant telephone constructed specially for the film. Because the 3-D process used two side-by-side cameras, extreme close-ups weren't possible or the object would seem to loom out of the movie screen. Therefore, Hitchcock had an oversized telephone created—along with a monster-sized finger—so he could get the close-up image that he wanted.

The disc also includes a good documentary on Dial M in which various commentators—including Robert Osborne of American Movie Classics, Hitchcock's daughter Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, film critic Richard Schickel, Psycho II director Richard Franklin, and M. Night Shyamalan—provide various insights into the movie's production history.
 

 Foreign Correspondent

1940 was a very good year for Alfred Hitchcock. His first two films made in Hollywood both received Best Picture Academy Award nominations. While Foreign Correspondent garnered six total nominations, Rebecca won the Best Picture award. Since then, Foreign Correspondent isn't often mentioned as one of Hitchcock's best films. In fact, Foreign Correspondent has been one of the more difficult films from Hitchcock's sound era to view. It has been available sporadically on VHS, but its release never received the same press attention as Hitchcock's widely-acknowledged classics.

Joel McCrea stars as Johnny Jones, a reporter picked by a newspaper publisher to become a foreign correspondent. Jones has no experience in this role, but that's exactly why the publisher chooses him: "What Europe needs is a fresh unused mind." So with the winds of war swirling in Europe, Jones flies to London. His mission is to interview Dutch Cabinet Minister Van Meer (Albert Basserman) and find out about the peace treaty negotiations. In one of Hitchcock's great set piece sequences, Jones watches as Van Meer is killed on the steps outside the peace conference. Jones chases the murderer and soon finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy, with Herbert Marshall as the villain.

Foreign Correspondent contains marvelous set piece action sequences that rate among the best of Hitchcock's career, such as a sequence in a windmill with set designs that evoke Universal's Frankenstein movies of the '30s. The movie also contains a stunning airplane crash sequence that stands up well beside the special effects of today. It's a nerve-racking sequence, masterfully timed as the downed plane fills with sea water and the passengers attempt to scramble out. With its globe trotting adventures and marvelous action set pieces, Foreign Correspondent set the stage for subsequent Hitchcock thrillers such as Saboteur and North by Northwest.

The documentary included on this DVD provides several insights by historian Rudy Behlmer into the movie's production history. He explains that the movie was originally supposed to be based on a 1935 book by Vincent Sheean titled Personal History. But by the time cameras started rolling, Hitchcock and his screenwriters (including Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison) had discarded everything from the novel and created a completely new treatment. Peter and Nat Benchley talk about their grandfather, Robert Benchley, who has a supporting role as a jaded American newspaperman. A famous satirist and the star of his own series of short comedies, Benchley wrote much of his own dialogue, as well as additional choice quips throughout the movie.
 

 Suspicion

Suspicion is everything you'd expect of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It's sophisticated. It involves murder and provides perilous close calls. It has effective comic relief. It involves a handsome leading actor (Cary Grant) who stars opposite a beautiful leading lady (Joan Fontaine, who won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance here). It has intriguing supporting characters (played by Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, and Sir Cedrick Hardwicke).

Fontaine plays a wealthy wallflower named Lina who encounters the outgoing Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant). She's attracted to him, but she has trouble believing he could be interested in her. Eventually, though, her doubts fade and she marries Johnny, but her doubts never fade completely. Soon she suspects he's planning her murder.

The novel upon which Suspicion is based, Before the Fact by Francis Iles, was told from the wife's point of view. The novel ended with her murder. RKO wouldn't allow this ending, particularly with Cary Grant as the accused, so an alternative ending was devised. The original ending had Lina writing a letter that names Johnny as her murderer. She asks Johnny to mail the letter—as he arrives in her bedroom with a glass of poisoned milk. The movie was to then end with him dropping the letter in a mailbox. In fact, a mailbox is prominently placed in the nearby village, so evidence of this ending still exists in Suspicion.

The movie's title came from title testing conducted by RKO. Hitchcock hated the title but accepted it. Whatever the case, it's an appropriate title because Lina's suspicions are at the heart of the movie. Cary Grant works well in this role because his persona is somewhat ambiguous. Something dangerous lies not far beneath his surface, which plays to a frequent Hitchcock theme that people often aren't who they seem.

The documentary included on Warner Home Video's disc provides insights from Peter Bogdanovich, author Bill Krohn, Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, film critic Richard Schickel, director Richard Franklin, music historian Christopher Husted, and composer Franz Waxman's son John.
 

 The Wrong Man

Alfred Hitchcock delivered The Wrong Man in 1956 when European films were making inroads into American theaters, so Hitchcock's movie may represent his attempt to be considered seriously as an artist. Filmed in a semi-documentary style, The Wrong Man isn't typical Hitchcock. You'll find no comic relief here. The mood is overwhelmingly bleak.

Henry Fonda stars as Manny Balestrero, a family man who earns a living as a musician in a night club. One evening, he's picked up by police as a murder suspect. We witness his growing desperation as the police charge him with the crime and lock him in jail. His own wife (Vera Miles) even begins to doubt his innocence and in the process her sanity slowly deteriorates.

Warner Home Video provides a 20-minute-long documentary on this disc with comments by Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne of AMC, and manager of the Bernard Herman estate Christopher Husted. During this documentary, art director Paul Sylbert explains how one of the movie's camera shots was accomplished (with walls that were pulled away so that the camera could follow Manny as he goes through a door). Meanwhile, Husted talks about how the Bernard Hermann score used short insistent themes to underscore the uncertainty of Manny's situation.
 

 Stage Fright

Alfred Hitchcock didn't consider Stage Fright a success. When the movie was first released, many critics were disturbed by the flashback that comes very near the movie's start. In this flashback—which takes place before we really know much about the characters—Hitchcock gives us an unreliable narrator who tells us an outrageous lie. This scene—upon which much of the movie to follow depends—was widely considered a flaw. Not everyone now agrees that the false flashback should be considered a flaw, but even if we grant Hitchcock the flashback, the rest of the movie still doesn't fare well.

The movie doesn't have the set pieces that we usually expect from Hitchcock. Maybe the closest thing is a garden party sequence in which Alastair Sim tries to win a prize at a carnival booth by claiming the good rifle shots of other shooters (his own shots consistently miss the targets). This scene is possibly the best thing in the movie with Sim comically bullying another shooter out of a bull's eye. But like many other scenes in the movie, this scene is superfluous. Hitchcock took the most care in Stage Fright while filming a scene in a carriage, where the murderer (Richard Todd) hides with the heroine (Jane Wyman, fresh off her Academy Award for Johnny Belinda). Hitchcock used the carriage so that the open windows could provide dramatic light on Todd's and Wyman's eyes as they talk, but even this scene doesn't build to much of a climax. Stage Fright also stars Marlene Dietrich as a nightclub singer. She sings a Cole Porter original composition titled "Laziest Gal in Town."

The DVD's documentary is 19 minutes long and features ample comments about the false flashback from director Richard Franklin, film critic Richard Schickel, and others.
 

 I Confess

Many '50s French new wave critics considered I Confess as one of Hitchcock's best movies, but its reputation has slipped somewhat over the years. It's a beautifully filmed drama, captured with plentiful shadows in the style of film noir, but it's also an uncompromisingly somber drama without any of the comic relief so typical of Hitchcock's thrillers.

I Confess is based on a play by Paul Anthelme in which a priest is implicated in a murder. The murderer reveals the crime to Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) during confession, so Logan is bound by his vocation to not reveal anything to the police about the murder; however, the murdered man was blackmailing Logan regarding a love affair from several years ago. This affair involved Logan and the wife (Anne Baxter) of a prominent politician. Once the police discover evidence of the blackmail attempt, Logan becomes the prime murder suspect.

The movie acquires much of its power from Clift's face; Hitchcock positions his camera claustrophobically close to Clift throughout the film. Logan is contrasted with the police detective played by Karl Malden. While Logan is a man of love and faith, the detective is a man of hard facts who must consider all the details of the crime. This places the detective in direct opposition to Logan, who must protect the sanctity of the confessional even if it means he will go to the gallows for murder.

The DVD's documentary includes comments from Bill Krohn, author of Hitchcock at Work, about the stage drama upon which the movie was based and upon Hitchcock's own Catholic upbringing (as it relates to the themes in I Confess). Actor Jack Larson provides insights into his friendship with Clift, and Robert Osborne of AMC talks about Dolly Haas, a great actress of '30s German cinema, who plays the wife of the murderer. Once she came to America, Haas soon gave up screen roles and married American caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Her role in I Confess was her first role in over a decade, and it was also her final role. Meanwhile, Peter Bogdanovich discusses the movie's rich visuals and the sumptuous black-and-white photography.
 

 Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is arguably the most untypical of all Hitchcock films. It's not a thriller. It's a screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard, the quintessential screwball dame. This was one of her last roles. She would die just two years later in an airplane crash. Hitchcock accepted the directorial assignment as a favor to Lombard, but because he had little experience with the lead characters, he merely shot the screenplay (supplied by Norman Krasna).

By no means was Hitchcock new to comedy, for he includes plentiful doses of comic relief in most of his thrillers. But here the story is all comedy. It begins with the outrageous premise that a technicality voids the union of the Smiths (Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard), and they must decide whether to become officially married.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith contains several great scenes, such as the scene at a nightclub where Jack Carson brings along two floozies, one as a date for Montgomery. However, Lombard also shows up at the nightclub, along with her new beau, played by '30s matinee idol Gene Raymond. So Montgomery ties to extricate himself before she sees him—by giving himself a bloody nose! Another great scene comes in a rundown restaurant. When the Smiths were newlyweds, they ate at this restaurant, but now it's a seedy joint. The Smiths dutifully proceed with their dinner plans, as they try to rekindle the old flame.

The DVD includes a 16-minute-long documentary. It's the shortest of the documentaries included in the Signature Collection set. It features Peter Bogdanovich, critic Richard Schickel, director Richard Franklin, and Robert Osborne of AMC.
 

 North By Northwest

North by Northwest was released on DVD in early 2004, several months before the rest of the DVDs in this set. So some consumers have complained about its inclusion—for they had already purchased North by Northwest separately. However, even if that's the case, they're still getting a good deal considering the discounted price of the entire set.

North by Northwest is on everyone's short list of Hitchcock's great movies. It functions like a greatest hits package, incorporating scenes that recall The 39 Steps, Saboteur, and Foreign Correspondent (among others).

It's been said that Cary Grant is the quintessential Hitchcock hero. Nowhere is this case as strong as in North by Northwest. Beneath his suave surface, Grant had a darker side, and this side keeps us from ever really pitying his horrible situation in this movie. The implication remains that he is somehow responsible for the terrible mess in which he finds himself. Although we know Roger Thornhill (Grant) is indeed innocent of murder, it's fun to watch him squirm and panic, in a way that it wouldn't be fun to watch the more hysterically inclined Jimmy Stewart (who, like Grant, starred in several Hitchcock films). This is especially true in the scene where spies force liquor down Grant's throat and then place him in a car—with no brakes—on a dangerous sea-coast road. The implication remains that the playboy Grant might very well have placed himself in such a position of his own volition and that makes his frantic efforts to survive the drive down the coast road a classic mixture of Hitchcock thrills and laughs.

The extras included on the North by Northwest disc are formatted differently than the extras on the other discs in the Signature Collection, which underlines this disc's tenuous relationship to the others in the set. Here Eva Marie Saint serves as the host for the disc's documentary. During the documentary's 40-minute running time, commentators provide us with several choice nuggets of information about the making of the movie. For example, as described by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the genesis of North by Northwest came when Hitchcock and Lehman were working on The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Lehman went to Hitchcock and confessed that he couldn't figure out how to write the sea melodrama. Hitchcock said that was okay and encouraged Lehman to instead work on a screenplay that would incorporate a chase across Mount Rushmore. (Michael Anderson would take Hitchcock's place as director of Mary Deare.) Lehman, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, and others also reveal the difficulties Hitchcock encountered in filming North by Northwest. For example, the United Nations wouldn't allow filming at its headquarters, so Hitchcock surreptitiously got the camera shot where Roger Thornhill arrives at the UN and walks in the front entrance by placing a camera truck across the street. The Department of Interior also originally denied Hitchcock a permit to film on Mount Rushmore. They didn't think it was proper for Hitchcock to be staging killings on the faces of famous U.S. presidents. MGM had to promise that the actors would not appear on the presidents' faces, so these shots were done in the studio. This documentary is filled with choice insights such as these.
 


"Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection" is now available from Warner Home Video. This boxed set provides the DVD debuts of seven Hitchcock films: Dial M for Murder, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, The Wrong Man, Stage Fright, I Confess, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Each DVD contains a new documentary. In addition, the set includes a remastered two-disc Special Edition of Strangers on a Train that showcases several bonus features. These DVDs are available individually or as part of a nine-film boxed set, "Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection," which also includes the previously released North by Northwest Special Edition. The individual titles are each priced at $19.97 SRP, except Strangers on a Train, which is priced at $26.99 SRP. The deluxe boxed set is priced at $99.92 SRP. For more information, check out the Warner Home Video Web site.
 


Photos courtesy of Warner Home Video.