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With: Joseph Cotten, James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe, Jerry Mathers, Doris Day, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Michel Piccoli, Karen Black, Bruce Dern
Written by: Dorothy Parker, Joan Harrison, John Michael Hayes, Joseph Stefano, etc.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1759
Date: 19/03/2013

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Suspense Account

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Alfred Hitchcock was alive and making movies, he was not considered a serious filmmaker, but a mere maker of light entertainments. He never made epics or biopics and his movies never contained the disease-of-the-week or sent any kind of sociopolitical messages. But now that he's gone, and with the benefit of hindsight, his extraordinary influence and his art have come into focus. Universal, the studio that produced and distributed a great portion of Hitchcock's American films, has released the complete Universal Hitchcock on DVD. Each of these titles has been released before, but this handsome new box set with its soft, felt covering, marks the first time they have been collected together. The 15 discs come packaged in four snap cases, with three or four discs per case.

Each disc is precisely the same as before, containing an in-depth documentary, running from 30 minutes to 50 minutes in length, plus trailers, lobby cards, and various other extras. As far as I can tell, the only things missing are the clues as to Hitchcock's cameo appearances that were printed on the back jackets of the original releases, as well as certain DVD-Rom extras that would not work on my Mac anyway.

Note: In 2012, Universal released a new, updated Blu-ray box set.

The films included are:

Saboteur (1942)
A soldier is wrongly accused of burning down a warehouse and killing a man in the process. It's fairly middle-of-the-road for the Master, due to the World War II-era propaganda in the script. In addition, Hitchcock was not happy with the un-charismatic Robert Cummings, but the film's Statue of Liberty ending is unforgettable, and the great Dorothy Parker herself collaborated on the screenplay, contributing the circus freak scene on the train.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Hitch's own personal favorite has Joseph Cotten as mysterious Uncle Charlie who comes to stay with his favorite niece, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright), after a string of murders has been committed. The idea of terror invading a small town seems quaint today, but the suspense builds effortlessly throughout.

Rope (1948)
Many consider this a failed experiment, but after seeing the film again on DVD, I call it a rousing success. Hitch takes on the Leopold-Loeb murder case, filming in one room in one continuous take (stopping only to change film magazines). Farley Granger and John Dall play the young couple that hides their corpse inside a table just before a dinner party. Jimmy Stewart steals the film as the bright professor who begins to suspect that something's up. The couple's homosexuality was covered up for the times, but is clearly implied.

Rear Window (1954)
Without question, this is one of Hitchcock's four or five greatest films, and a flawless masterpiece. Jimmy Stewart stars in one of his greatest performances as the bored photojournalist stuck in his apartment with his leg in a cast. He stares out across his building's courtyard at the myriad of windows, lined up like panels of a comic strip, and begins to suspect one neighbor of foul play. Grace Kelly plays his long-suffering girlfriend and the great Thelma Ritter his long-suffering nurse and maid. Pitch-perfect. The new DVD was transferred from the recently restored negative for gloriously sharp picture and sound, and it contains a documentary about the film and its restoration. (Read the full review.)

The Trouble with Harry (1955)
You either love or hate this comedy classic, and I love it. I've seen it more times than just about any other Hitchcock, and I was thrilled to see it re-mastered and letterboxed for the first time. John Forsythe stars as a New England painter who falls for a young widow (Shirley MacLaine in her film debut) just about the time a dead body is discovered in the pastel-colored hills. Each of the characters thinks he's responsible for the man's death and various attempts are made to cover it up. This is dark comedy at its darkest. Jerry Mathers ("Leave It To Beaver") also appears.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Hitchcock remade his 1934 film in full color and with box-office stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Each version has certain elements superior to the other, but both films rank as minor Hitchcock works. While on vacation in Morocco, a couple's child is kidnapped after a dying spy whispers an important tidbit in Stewart's ear. The film won an Oscar for Doris Day's song "Que Sera, Sera," which Hitchcock abhorred, and master composer Bernard Herrmann appears as the orchestra conductor in the climactic Albert Hall sequence.

Vertigo (1958)
Often cited as Hitchcock's most personal movie, Vertigo stars Jimmy Stewart as a retired cop who is hired to follow a woman (Kim Novak) and is unable to help as she falls to her death. His obsession turns feverish when he discovers a look-alike and tries to mold her into the original. More than just a thriller, scholars have attempted for years to read meaning into the film's many vicious layers. It was based on the French novel d'Entre les Morts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and was adapted by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor. (Read the full review.)

North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, a businessman who is mistaken for a government spy who, in fact, does not exist. Written by Ernest Lehman and with one of Bernard Herrmann's finest music scores. Note: This film is included in the 2012 Blu-ray set, but not in the 2005 DVD set. (See my full review.)

Psycho (1960)
Instead of taking it easy and making big expensive movies with big stars, the 60 year-old Hitchcock reverted to a small television crew (from his popular TV show), a low budget and little-known actors to make this superb example of movie craft. In Psycho, every shot, every cut, even the length of every shot, is timed perfectly for maximum effect, as only a true artist can do. (Read the full review.)

The Birds (1963)
Imagine a two-hour movie in which nothing happens but birds attacking people. Little weight is given to subplots, romances, or comedy bits -- just raw suspense. This is movie craftsmanship at its greatest degree (Hitch spent 3 years on the production of this movie, making sure the effects were perfect.) Even now, it's missing its legendary original ending with the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds. Composer Bernard Herrmann -- the greatest movie composer ever -- crafted the brilliant scores for Vertigo and Psycho (strings only), as well as designing the bird noises for The Birds.

Marnie (1964)
This messy bit of twisted psychological damage is arguably the most underrated film in Hitchcock's canon. Like Vertigo, it peers much deeper into the human psyche than most other Hitchcock movies. Tippi Hedren stars as a kleptomaniac and Sean Connery plays her almost equally disturbed employer. He forces her to marry him, thereby initiating a series of pulsating power plays. Fortunately, Marnie has become a cult classic in the years since its release.

Torn Curtain (1966)
A strangely muted, dull effort, though still worthy of attention. Paul Newman plays an American who may or may not be a defector. Julie Andrews plays his confused fiancée who decides to follow him to Russia at any cost. Reportedly, Hitchcock and Newman did not get along, and the film also marked the unhappy end of Hitch's collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann. This gloomy atmosphere seems to permeate the final film, but it contains some breathtaking moments, such as a long, slow, gruesome murder scene. The DVD reconstructs certain alternate scenes with Herrmann's completed score in place, and it's a vast improvement.

Topaz (1969)
A lengthy espionage thriller with no American stars, Topaz nevertheless shows Hitchcock in peak form. A French intelligence agent works with an American one to figure out what the Russians are doing in Cuba. The great French star Michel Piccoli (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Contempt) appears as a bad guy. This disc contains an outstanding documentary hosted by critic Leonard Maltin in which he explains that even just a "good" Hitchcock film is better than most people's "great" films.

Frenzy (1972)
This is one of Hitchcock's best and least appreciated films, giving the Master a creative boost after a minor slump. It combines the two plots he loved best; the Method of the Murderer, and the Man Falsely Accused. It also returned the great director to England, where he was born and hadn't made a film since 1940. Hitchcock had been aware of the increasing allowance for sex and violence in films, and adjusted his formula accordingly. Certain scenes in Frenzy contain nudity and violence, perhaps all the more shocking because we don't expect them in a Hitchcock film. And finally, Hitchcock slices in slabs of his trademark dark humor, showing a hapless police captain who must endure his wife's awful cooking.

Family Plot (1976)
Hitchcock's final film boasts the oddly beautiful and always weird Karen Black as a kidnapper/thief in a blonde wig. But the film also suffers from a shrill, overcooked performance by Barbara Harris as a phony medium. An old woman hires her to find her only heir so that he can inherit her fortune. Bruce Dern shines as a cab driver posing as a rumpled detective, puffing on a pipe and not fooling anyone. Again, it's not top-tier Hitchcock, but it features enough good stuff to make it at least worth one viewing.

Bonus Disc
This disc contains an excerpt from Hitchcock's AFI tribute, a 30-minute television interview, and two feature-length making-of documentaries on The Birds and Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents - Season One This three-disc set comes separately and features the first 39 episodes. Highlights include three episodes directed by Hitch ("Revenge," "Breakdown" and "The Case of Mr. Pelham"), two written by Cornell Woolrich, two written by Ray Bradbury and two Christmas episodes. Guest stars include John Cassavetes, Joseph Cotten, Charles Bronson, Thelma Ritter, Jo Van Fleet, Joanne Woodward and Elisha Cook, Jr.

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