Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection—Universal

Alfred Hitchcock in a Box

The matured DVD format enables library builders to enjoy the full sweep of a great career in cinema for minimal investment. A perfect example is Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. Most of his major works are collectible in huge boxed sets that cost less, per title, than a movie ticket. True, the HD DVD and Blu-ray formats may eventually bring high-def reissues. But that would take years, and in the meantime, the standard-def boxes are bargains. Grab them before they slip away.

Best of the bunch is Universal's Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection. The box itself is a loving masterpiece in soft maroon velvet. Four interior boxes, most holding four discs, include (in chronological order): Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948, the first in color), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, the remake), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972), and Family Plot (1976).

Most come with fascinating making-of documentaries featuring valuable recent interviews with cast, key members of Hitchcock's production team, and Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, daughter of Alfred and Alma. Notable extras include three different endings for Topaz and precious fragments of Bernard Herrmann's rejected score for Torn Curtain. The third through seventh titles listed above are painstaking pre-digital restorations that rejuvenated the color fidelity and black level of fading film elements. Vertigo alone cost $1 million to restore and features a 5.1-channel remix with some effects recreated and redubbed. Best of all, at the current street price, you can buy the collection for just $6 per title. Still gonna wait for the HD DVDs, sucka?

The second most indispensable boxed set is Warner's Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection. The packaging is nothing fancy-just a plain black paper sleeve-but at $8 per title, why quibble? Major works include North by Northwest (1959) and Strangers on a Train (1951) along with Foreign Correspondent (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), Suspicion (1941), Stage Fright (1950), I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1955), and The Wrong Man (1956). Strangers comes with an alternate ending and there are more fine making-ofs. All titles are in a good state of preservation, and seven of nine are in B&W, beautifully showcasing the play of shadows that the director used to signify guilt and complicity.

Alfred and Alma Hitchcock-who cowrote the scripts for many of her husband's films and was his closest confidante-worked in their native England until 1940. The British period, as critics call it, is all B&W, combining masterworks that show the master's art fully developed, other movies that show it in formative stages, experiments in non-suspense genres, and take-the-money-and-run projects. No Hitchcock collection would be complete without Blackmail (1929, the first talkie), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, forerunner of the 1956 remake), and The 39 Steps (1935, forerunner of North by Northwest).

Now in the public domain, the British-period films are packaged by many companies in many combinations. Budgets were tighter, production values were not as high, and print quality is iffy on these early Hitchcocks. The largest selection is in Laserlight's The Hitchcock Collection: The Early Years, which includes 16 films and two episodes of the TV program Alfred Hitchcock Presents on 14 discs with inane introductions by Tony Curtis. Street pricing comes to less than $7 per title. Beware of the 12-disc and five-disc versions of this box-they cost less but have fewer titles.

Possibly the cheapest British-period Hitchcock collection is Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense from Brentwood Home Video, a.k.a. BCI/Eclipse, with 10 titles on five dual-sided discs at less than $2 per title. The 39 Steps is notably missing but the set does include two items omitted from the Laserlight box: The Lodger, from the silent era, one of the significant formative Hitchcocks, and Juno and the Paycock, a forgettable melodrama. All titles are mastered in five-channel mono, which makes the deteriorated optical soundtracks slightly more intelligible.

The Criterion Collection's Wrong Men & Notorious Women: Five Hitchcock Thrillers 1935-1946 gathers together three must-have American movies (Rebecca, 1940; Spellbound, 1945; Notorious, 1946) and two delightful British ones (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes). Sadly, it is out of print and used copies are stratospherically priced.

The uncollected titles are available singly. These include reliable major-label releases of Lifeboat (1944, recently remastered by Fox), Under Capricorn (1949, Image), and To Catch a Thief (1954, Paramount). Anchor Bay's decent release of Spellbound includes an instrumental overture. However, other budget releases, especially those sourced from the far east, can be dodgy. I have before me the Bo-Ying edition of Rebecca identified on its spine as Relecca [sic]. What really broke my heart, though, is a disc of Notorious-my favorite Hitchcock!-from a company that can't even be identified (at least in English) anywhere on the packaging. Halfway through, following the layer change, dialogue goes out of sync and stays that way. Out-of-print U.S. editions are preferable, certainly Criterion's, and possibly Anchor Bay's.

Space barely permits consideration of the many music-only releases of Bernard Herrman's Hitchcock scores, but three are noteworthy. One is Sony's stereo SACD of Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in suites from Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and others. Though Herrmann's best-loved scores have been repeatedly re-recorded, his own taut recordings tend to be the definitive performances-seek out used CDs or LPs of Psycho (Unicorn) in particular. The most authoritative Vertigo is Mercury's London Sinfonia version, the one actually used in the movie. It had to be recorded in Europe by Muir Mathieson, standing in for Herrmann, because the Hollywood musicians were on strike.

Though fondly remembered as a mainstream entertainer, Hitchcock was also a cutting-edge filmmaker who seamlessly blended montage, moving camera, moral ambiguity, and visual set pieces that still take the breath away. Oh, have I mentioned the sex and violence? Film scholars and audiences alike will always relish (however perversely) the shower stabbing in Psycho, the sensational attacks of The Birds, Stage Fright's bloody dress, the still-shocking act of terrorism in Sabotage, and the symphonic assassination in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much-not to mention Vertigo's obsessive love story, Rear Window's backyard voyeurism, the polymorphous undertow of both Strangers on a Train and Rope, the camera whirling around lovers in Notorious, and the train lewdly rocketing into a tunnel at the end of North by Northwest. That last one also boasts the crowning Hitchcock moment, the cropduster biplane chasing hapless Cary Grant through a cornfield, spraying insecticide and bullets, a surreal vision of aggression and paranoia that astonishes and amuses at the same time.

Hitchcock directed a who's who of Hollywood's finest. Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman were his favorite heroines, James Stewart and Grant his favorite heroes. Also appearing more than once were Joseph Cotten, Peter Lorre, Vera Miles, Gregory Peck, and George Sanders. One-shots (some of whom tormented the director and vice versa) included Julie Andrews, Montgomery Clift, Henry Fonda, John Gielgud, Carole Lombard, Paul Newman, Lawrence Olivier, Anthony Perkins, Natalie Wood, and most unforgettably, Claude Rains in Notorious. But in the hands of the Master of Suspense, visual storytelling was always the most glamorous star.