Judge Patrick Bromley wishes you a...good evening.
Our reviews of The Birds (published March 16th, 2000), Family Plot (published April 17th, 2001), Frenzy (published March 30th, 2001), The Man Who Knew Too Much (published November 14th, 2001), The Man Who Knew Too Much (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published February 11th, 2013), Marnie (published June 5th, 2000), North By Northwest (published December 18th, 2000), North By Northwest (Blu-Ray) (published November 3rd, 2009), Psycho: Special Edition (published October 7th, 2008), Psycho (Blu-Ray) 50th Anniversary Edition (published October 18th, 2010), Rear Window (published May 10th, 2001), Rear Window: Special Edition (published October 7th, 2008), Rope (published March 22nd, 2001), Saboteur (published March 30th, 2001), Shadow of a Doubt (published April 5th, 2001), Topaz (published April 23rd, 2001), Torn Curtain (published March 28th, 2001), The Trouble With Harry (published April 5th, 2001), Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012), and Vertigo: Special Edition (published October 7th, 2008) are also available.
"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible."—Alfred Hitchcock
Fifteen (15!) of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, spanning a period of over 30 years, are collected together in one of the year's very best HD releases—a perfect entry point for those new to the director and a reward for his most devoted fans.
Facts of the Case
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Rear Window (1954)
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
North by Northwest (1959)
The Birds (1963)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Family Plot (1976)
Oh, my. Where do we start?
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors of all time. Period. It's not a statement of opinion, it's a statement of fact. One could make a case that he's the greatest director of all time. I would be willing to hear that argument.
Universal's incredible Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection gathers a whopping 15 of the director's movies together, many of which are appearing on Blu-ray for the first time. These are not necessarily his 15 "best" movies, partially because of rights issues (Warner Bros. holds the license for several of his movies, though they did work with Universal to ensure that North by Northwest be included here). That's OK, because what's collected here provides a more interesting examination of Hitchcock as a filmmaker and at the trajectory of his career. As someone who loves to look at films as the body of work of a single author, The Masterpiece Collection is just as worthwhile for its hits as well as its misses—and, to be fair, the misses are few. Even "miss" isn't really a fair classification, and one that's only being used because those movies are being held up against all-time great movies like Psycho and Vertigo. Not every movie can be Vertigo.
One of my roadblocks with Hitchcock has always been my own aversion to one of his favorite plots: the Innocent Man Wrongly Accused. It's there in Saboteur and in Frenzy; it's at the heart of one his best-loved classics North by Northwest, a movie I've always been able to appreciate much more than enjoy for exactly that reason. Thankfully (again, only as far as I'm concerned), that particular plot doesn't appear in too many of the titles in the Masterpiece Collection, which offers up a varied mix of suspense (Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much), psychological drama (Vertigo, Marnie), political intrigue (Topaz, Torn Curtain), horror (Psycho, The Birds) and even black comedy (The Trouble with Harry, Family Plot). Though every movie feels like a Hitchcock movie—there's no mistaking his themes and style—the offerings here are different enough from one another that it's easy to plow through all 15 titles without a sense of redundancy.
The chronological structure of the box set makes another argument for watching the whole thing in order, too, because it provides a real sense of just where the director peaked—you can pretty much tell just by reading through the titles as listed. Hitchcock's streak from Rear Window through The Birds (minus maybe his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is good but not great, but including the underrated The Trouble With Harry) is as good as any filmmaker has ever had. It's an even more impressive accomplishment when you consider that Hitchcock was cranking movies out at the rate of about one a year, creating movies that are unmistakably his despite not writing any of the screenplays. Such is the strength of his directorial voice.
For my money, Vertigo remains Hitchcock's best movie (which was confirmed by Sight & Sound choosing it over Citizen Kane as the best movie ever made in this year's critics' poll, depending on how much faith you put in such things—I'm mostly kidding when I say "confirmed"), though obviously Psycho is a close, close second. While there are going to be diehard fans of any of his movies (any movie period, actually), I don't think Hitchcock is one of those directors where there are a whole lot of entries in his filmography debated as his "best"—the discussion is basically reduced to a handful of titles (some of which, like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Read Window, are included here, and some of which, like Notorious, are not). But the Blu-ray collection will hopefully allow audiences to fill in the gaps on a few titles they may have missed, or rediscover some of the underrated titles in Hitchcock's catalogue (like Frenzy and The Trouble with Harry) once deemed as "lesser" efforts.
Most of the transfers in The Masterpiece Collection, all presented in full 1080p HD, are excellent, looking better than they've ever looked on any home video format. The black and white transfers on Shadow of a Doubt, Saboteur and, of course, Psycho (which has been released on Blu-ray before) are all striking in their contrast and clarity, retaining all of their detail and rarely, if ever, succumbing to issues of crush or artifacting. Other films, like Vertigo, Rear Window and The Trouble with Harry, are just as striking in their vibrancy of color and cleanliness of the image. The good transfers on the set (and the majority of them are very good) rarely give away the age of the movies; Universal has done a terrific job of restoring and cleaning them up. There are, however, a few disappointing spots. Marnie suffers from a problematic grain structure, with grain swirling the screen to a distracting degree in one shot and being all but nonexistent in the next. Frenzy is a disappointment, too, but because it goes too far in the other direction—it has been too "cleaned up," to the point where liberal doses of DNR has stripped the movie of a lot of detail and leaves things looking unnatural and plastic. The biggest bummer of the set, though, is Hitchcock's last movie, Family Plot, which seems like it was thrown in as an afterthought or that the studio ran out of time or patience to restore just one more movie. I've seen it compared to an early DVD transfer, and that sounds about right—colors are bad, detail has been ruined by digital tinkering, black levels disappear from crush. Not only is it one of the worse Blu-ray transfers I've come across, it's all the more disappointing because it closes out a brilliant box set on such a down note. Universal should have stuck the landing and they didn't.
None of the lossless audio tracks suffer from the same inconsistencies. The majority of the movies feature DTS-HD mono tracks, which are faithful to the source and do a good job of balancing the dialogue and memorable music without any hiss or ever feeling tinny and hollow. Three of Hitchcock's best-known and most popular movies, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, receive surround sound mixes (though two of them, Psycho and Vertigo, also contain their original mono mixes for purists), all of which are effective and tastefully done. They're not bombastic or obnoxious, and offer the opportunity for Bernard Hermmann's scores for all three to really shine.
Many of the bonus features for each movie have been carried over from the many previous DVD releases, with only a few titles receiving any new content. Every disc contains a retrospective production featurette devoted to the movie in question (running anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes), a collection of photos ranging from storyboards to production stills to publicity galleries and at least one trailer. The documentaries are almost always enjoyable and informative, revealing the films to be richer and more complex than one or two viewings might suggest; Hitchcock's technique is often so sly that it's nearly invisible unless it's pointed out. Several of the "flagship" titles get a more deluxe treatment. The bonus features on those discs are as follows:
Rear Window: Commentary by author John Farwell, retrospective featurette, a second featurette that looks back at Hitchcock's entire body of work, a 30-minute interview with Hitchcock called "Masters of Cinema," excerpts from Hitchcock's legendary interviews with Francois Truffaut, an interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, a piece on the director's use of sound, a collection of production stills and trailers for the original release and that re-release.
Vertigo: Commentary by director William Friedkin, a 30-minute retrospective featurette looking back at the movie's production and legacy, a collection of featurettes covering Hitchcock's regular collaborators, more interview excerpts from Hitchcock and Truffaut, a short "100 Years of Universal" piece (presented in HD) focusing on Lew Wasserman's run at the studio, a collection if pre-production drawings, an alternate ending and trailers for both the original release and the restoration.
North by Northwest: Screenwriter Ernest Lehman's solid commentary track has been ported over from the DVD release; an hour-long doc on Hitchcock's directorial style, a making-of featurette and a retrospective featurette, a 90-minute documentary on star Cary Grant, originally produced for PBS, a collection of stills and trailers, as well as the option of watch the film with only Bernard Hermmann's score on the soundtrack.
Psycho: Commentary by Stephen Rebello, a 90-minute making-of documentary, a featurette on the remix of the movie, featurettes on the shower scene, the movie's original release and Hitchcock's legacy, storyboards for the shower scene, interview excerpts from the Hitchcock/Truffaut sessions, a still gallery consisting of publicity stills, lobby cards, posters and other ad materials.
The Birds: An 80-minute "making-of" documentary, a featurette on the movie's legacy as a horror film, a deleted scene the original ending, Tippi Hedren's original screen test, more excerpts from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, a collection of storyboards and production stills, a featurette on the restoration of Universal's classics catalogue (the same one that appears on many of the studio's 2012 releases), a featurette on the studio backlot, two vintage newsreels promoting the movie's original release and the theatrical trailer.
In a year that has seen some incredible Blu-ray box sets—Indiana Jones: The Complete Collection, Universal 100th Anniversary Collection, Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection—the Masterpiece Collection might just be the best one of them all. To have 15 films from one of the greatest (if not the greatest) directors of all time collected on Blu-ray—many for the first time on the format—plus hours of bonus content to boot is like a gift. It's film history, film school and endless entertainment all in one box. This is one of the must-own Blu-ray releases of the year.
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