by Donald Melanson
January 21, 2005 | Warner Bros. has recently become the
king of DVD boxed sets with highly acclaimed releases like the Film
Noir and Martin Scorsese collections, not to mention some of the
most anticipated releases of 2005 (Warner Gangsters and Classic
Musicals for starters). A few months back, they excited film
lovers with the release of the long-awaited Alfred Hitchcock
Signature Collection, a nine movie set covering Hitchcock's
entire Warner Bros. period.
Almost all of the films in the set are on DVD for the first time,
and one previous release, Strangers on a Train, got upgraded
to a two-disc special edition for this collection. Only North
by Northwest is duplicated from the previous edition - but that's
okay by me since it was already a standard for classic film releases
Taken together, the films in the set are a fine representation
of the scope of Hitchcock's work and should dispel any notions among
casual film viewers that he only made "scary movies".
The centerpiece of the set is a new two-disc special edition of
Strangers on a Train. It was previously available
in a decent single-disc release that had both the preview and final
release versions of the film but was otherwise short on extras.
This new edition retains both versions of the film but adds a great
commentary track featuring Peter Bogdanovich and a host of others,
a superb making-of documentary, as well as a number of other short
featurettes. And the transfer looks incredible, although I don't
have the original release to compare it to.
The film shows Hitchcock at his darkly comic and twisted best.
The plot of Strangers on a Train will probably be familiar
even to many whom have not seen the film. Robert Walker, in a brilliant
performance, encounters a famous tennis pro (played by Farley Granger)
on a train and ensnares him in a plot to murder his father if he
murders Granger's wife. They'll solve each other's problems with
no one to pin the blame on. The only problem is Walker won't take
no for an answer.
It's Hitchcock's favorite scenario - an innocent man caught up
in a situation that spirals beyond his control. Indeed, most of
the films in this set at least partly incorporate this theme.
A couple of the films in the set also make for some great double
features. North by Northwest and Foreign Correspondent
are two of Hitchcock's most rousing pictures, with stunning set
pieces, sharp humor, and suspense that puts most of today's thrillers
North by Northwest, of course, needs no introduction. It's
about as entertaining as thrillers get and is easily one of Hitchcock's
four or five best films. The only downside is that almost everyone
buying this collection will already have a copy of it, but given
the low price of the set (about $70US) you can consider it a bonus.
In many ways, Foreign Correspondent laid the template for
North by Northwest. It features some spectacular set pieces,
including one of the best assassination scenes I've seen, and wonderful
production design by the great William Cameron Menzies (director
of one of my favorite 50s sci-fi classics, Invaders from Mars).
The windmill scene in Foreign Correspondent is especially
memorable, both for Menzies set design and Hitchcock's masterful
direction. There are even echoes of the scene in North by Northwest
when Cary Grant sneaks around the house of James Mason's character.
The Wrong Man and I Confess make for an interesting
pairing as well, as they are the two most overt examples of the
influence of Hitchcock's Catholicism on his films. Both films incorporate
a great deal of Catholic symbolism and both feature men wrongfully
accused of a crime.
The Wrong Man, starring Henry Fonda, is unique among Hitchcock's
films. It's the only time he based a film on a true story and, in
fact, shot at many of the actual locations in New York that figure
in the story, including the famous Stork Club. Indeed, much of the
film has a semi-documentary feel to it, although there are plenty
of striking visuals, as you'd expect from Hitchcock (the scene with
Fonda in jail, in particular, is a stunning piece of work). It is
also the only film Hitchcock introduced at the beginning, appearing
ominously in silhouette to tell you that everything you are about
to see really happened.
The conventional wisdom about I Confess is that French and
other European critics consider it to be one of Hitchcock's absolute
best films and American critics find it one of his lesser films.
While I don't think it's quite on the level of something like Vertigo
or Rear Window, I do think it is one of his most under-appreciated
films. It stars Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest who hears
the confession of a killer and is then framed for the murder himself
- yet another instance of the wrong man scenario.
Shooting in Quebec City, Hitchcock makes full use of the city's
rich architecture evening adding some expressionistic touches, especially
in the fantastic opening scene, that show a greater European influence
than most of his other films (maybe that's why the French like it
Another greatly anticipated film in the set is Dial M for Murder,
Hitchcock's only 3D movie (sadly, the DVD only includes the standard
version), although it has to be the least gimmicky 3D film ever
made. Like Rear Window, it takes place almost entirely in
one location, in this case a small apartment. It's one of Hitchcock's
least visually interesting films (he was even once quoted as saying:
"If you buy a good play, you just shoot it"), but it's a clever
and fun mystery in the Agatha Christie tradition.
Rounding out the set are three slightly less notable entries in
the Hitchcock canon: Stage Fright, Suspicion and
Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Few would consider them among Hitchcock's
best work, but all have their merits. Suspicion especially
has some great stylistic touches like the famous glowing glass of
milk and is notable for being the first Cary Grant/Hitchcock pairing.
Stage Fright is arguably the weakest film in the
set and, depending on your mood, it either has a brilliant narrative
structure or uses a cheap trick to fool the audience. I won't reveal
it for those that haven't seen the film, but regardless of that
point of contention, Stage Fright is below average for Hitchcock.
But it's got Marlene Dietrich singing "The Laziest Gal in Town",
so it's not all bad.
Lastly comes a bit of an oddity for Hitchcock, the screwball comedy
Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery,
it's somewhat of a curiosity for Hitchcock fans, but certainly a
All of the DVDs feature short documentaries produced by Laurent
Bouzereau but none, other than the aforementioned Strangers on a
Train and North by Northwest, have audio commentaries. Who knows,
maybe Warner's trying to balance out their Film Noir set,
which had commentaries on all the discs but no documentaries. Of
course what's most important is the films themselves and, for the
most part, they look incredible. Stage Fright probably has
the most problems, with some very noticeable scratches, but on the
whole there's very little to complain about.
I'm not the first one to say it, but Warner Bros. has really been
outdoing themselves with their steady string of boxed sets. Not
only are they of superb quality, but they sell for a price that
works out to less than $10 per movie. Now, if only Universal would
lower the price of their Hitchcock sets to match.
Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack and
a freelance writer for hire. He also rants and raves about movies
on his film blog.