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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 on DVD.

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 to shame.

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 so much).

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 fun one.

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.

Donald 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.

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