ALFRED HITCHCOCK: Premiere Collection DVD Review

     November 1, 2008

Reviewed by Bob Lydecker

Housed in a beautiful, fact-filled spiral-bound book sheathed in a plastic slipcase, MGM’s Alfred Hitchcock premiere collection presents eight of the director’s movies spanning his silent work, British period, and focusing his employment by producer David O Selznick. Each movie receives seven pages of trivia and analysis before the viewer is confronted with that bane of the boxed set – poor disc packaging. In this case, the eight DVDs are snugly fitted into cardboard pockets guaranteed to scratch the playback surface if suitable precautions are not taken upon extraction.

The set opens with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. Based upon Mrs. Belloc Lowndes fictionalized story of Jack the Ripper, The Lodger looks surprisingly good for an 81-year-old film. Two alternative scores are provided and though Paul Zaza’s 1997 effort is well-executed, Ashley Irwin’s version, recorded for Hitchcock centenary, is a triumph of unexpected sounds that perfectly complement the hunt for a serial killer. Historian Patrick McGilligan provides the collections least engaging commentary, though his grating talk covers much of the movie’s history. Preferable to McGilligan’s talk is the documentary that looks back on the silent spectacle and chronicles what will become a recurring theme in this set: stories re-written to soft-pedal unseemly revelations at the climax. The rather amusing featurette, “Hitchcock 101,” recounts the director’s granddaughter Mary Stone’s experience in a university class on her esteemed ancestor.

1940’s Sabotage presents the director’s oeuvre at its most timely as a tale of domestic terror unfolds in a London that could easily be any big American city today. In an accompanying audio interview with director Peter Bogdanovich (a recurring supplement throughout the set), Hitchcock admits to having carried the film’s tragedy too far in a memorable plot point that seals the saboteur’s fate. Leonard Leff provides a commentary and, like most of the other movies herein, there is a short restoration comparison highlighting the digital repairs applied to these film transfers.

The exploration of Hitch’s British period concludes with Young and Innocent, the romantic story of a man on the run from a murder rap who finds himself on the run with a policeman’s daughter and stumbling from one bizarre scenario to another in an attempt to prove his innocence. Easily the most contrived of the stories in the set, the film nevertheless has a whimsical charm. A conversational commentary with historians Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn provides a nice change of pace in a set dominated by professorial lectures and there’s an isolated music and effects track for those who appreciate such details. To my knowledge, these three films are appearing on DVD for the first time in non-public domain editions. Alongside Lionsgate’s recent anthology and Criterion’s presentation of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, the home viewer can now enjoy a robust collection of the director’s early works on DVD.

The next entry in MGM’s assemblage represents the return to the format of three films previously issued by Anchor Bay and Criterion, but long out of print in the interlude. Rebecca is Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale of an unnamed name woman (Joan Fontaine) haunted by her wealthy husband’s eponymous first wife and scored the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940. MGM goes toe-to-toe with Criterion’s edition re-presenting a selection of screen tests (though the Criterion offers a few more) and radio adaptations. Richard Schikel’s MGM commentary equals Leonard Leff’s Criterion effort. Though the two-disc Criterion version wins out on quantity of material, MGM’s documentaries on the movie itself and the woman who crafted the novel it was based on more than swing the favor to the new edition. Both versions offer an isolated score and – as with most of the films in this set – François Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock provide a contrast to Bogdanovich’s encounters.

In 1944, Selznick loaned Hitchcock to Fox for Lifeboat, a suspenseful narrative set entirely within the confines of the title vehicle as a group of submarine attack survivors try to make for Allied waters with a Nazi among them. Alone amongst the movies in this set, Lifeboat is a re-issue of Fox’s solo DVD release from a few years back. The transfer is the least appealing of the bunch and is marred by serious damage to the source print. Drew Casper provides an entertaining commentary that nicely compliments the Making-of documentary.

Spellbound is the second of the Anchor Bay/Criterion/MGM redux trilogy and, like Rebecca and Notorious, sports image and sound comparable to the Criterion issues sans the picture boxed opening titles. Spellbound finds Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck sharing the screen in an early cinematic portrayal of psychoanalysis that is riveting to the last narrative beat. Unsurprisingly, much of the supplemental material focuses on the oft-lauded dream imagery created by Salvador Dalí and eventually simplified and executed by Gone With the Wind designer William Cameron Menzies. Historians Thomas Shatz and Charles Ramirez Berg do an excellent job of tackling the psychological elements to the story while a Hitchcock-directed radio play offers a further aural delight. Actress Rhonda Fleming, who made her film debut as a nymphomaniac in the asylum recounts her fairy tale rise from high schooler to starlet. Whereas MGM’s Rebecca barely edged out the Criterion issue, Spellbound is a no-contest win for the lion.

Easily the best film of the lot, Notorious represents the director at an early career apex. Ingrid Bergman is superlative as the daughter of a Nazi spy deployed in a plot that perfectly presages Mission: Impossible to topple a German agent hiding out in South America. Despite the stringent censorship of the Hollywood Production Code, the movie literally gets away with murder in what must be one of the most sexually-charged films of the 1940s. Dr. Casper returns for the set’s best commentary yet while his colleague contextualizes the movie on yet another audio track. A making-of documentary, a featurette on Hitchcock’s association with the spy genre, and the obligatory radio adaptation easily trump Criterion’s release, though the earlier version is worth having for the wealth of text-based supplements detailing deleted scenes and the ever-evolving denouement.

1947’s The Paradine Case closes the set – and Hitchcock’s partnership with Selznick – it what might have been a template for David E. Kelley’s The Practice. Set predominantly in England’s Old Bailey, the story is a taut legal thriller that finds Gregory Peck’s conflicted barrister defending the exotic Italian star Valli for her husband’s murder. Rebello and Krohn return to discuss the Case at length in a thoughtful commentary that highlights the virtues of this often overlooked gem. As with Notorious and two other movies in this collection, there’s an isolated music and effects track, so feel free to dub your own version of the movie. Joseph Cotton stars in a radio adaptation and Bogdanovich concludes his conversational exchanges with the great director.

If your shelf already contains Universal’s velvet-lined Masterpiece Collection (or even the recent two-disc reissues of Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window), Warner’s Signature Collection, Lionsgate’s early works anthology, and the remaining in print Criterion releases, this set will go along way toward completing your collection of Hitchcock’s film career. If you don’t have any of the aforementioned releases, do yourself a favor and buy them all.

On a scale where “A” indicates the pinnacle of the medium, “B” stands for an extraordinary example, “C” represents 90-percent of what’s out there, “D” indicates a sub-standard effort, and “F” means an abomination that should at least result in the sterilization of those responsible…

The Lodger scores an A-, Sabotage a B , Young and Innocent a B-, Rebecca an A, Lifeboat an A-, Spellbound an A-, Notorious an A and The Paradine Case earns an A-. The entire anthology merits a resounding A.

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