The most anticipated Blu-ray release of the year shipped a few weeks ago—Universal’s Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection. I’ve gone through the individual titles to give an extensive review.
Now depending on whether you go for the US or the UK release, the set comes with 15 or 14 titles. The US edition includes a reissue of the Warner Brother’s 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. So if you already have that, you might want to consider the UK Limited edition which comes in a rather nice keepsake coffee table book, which includes a number of other extras – like reproductions of costume sketches, posters art, storyboards, production correspondence and more. It definitely makes for a nice package. Other than the inclusion of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, disc-wise, the releases are identical…which means thirteen Hitchcock titles that are brand new to Blu-ray with this release. (PSYCHO had been the only Universal title released thus far) Now there’s some great news and some really awful news about this release. The best news first: REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO will definitely impress.
The first thing you will notice about the presentation of REAR WINDOW is the amount of detail you’ve never seen in previous video releases. Both inside Jefferies’ apartment and outside in the courtyard, there’s much to take in. The colors are rich…nice blacks in the night scenes…and fairly accurate skin tones throughout. This is a title that never quite looked as good as it should have, even on the 2008 double DVD release…and it gets the treatment it deserves here.
The huge sigh of relief over VERTIGO had little to do with the image quality and more to do with the sound. Many of you know I’ve been pretty outspoken about the botched job that Robert Harris and James Katz did on the 1996 “restoration” of VERTIGO which replaced Hitchcock’s carefully designed and mixed soundtrack with a completely unsubtle, in-your-face, mash-up of foley effects, out of sync music cues and drowned out dialogue. Happily, Universal has NOT included that abomination here. VERTIGO sounds like VERTIGO again! Visually, again, like REAR WINDOW…detail and color are impressive. It’s Hitchcock’s most beautifully shot and designed film and for those times you can’t make it to the Museum of the Moving Image to catch a vintage 1958 IB Technicolor print, this Blu-ray makes a fine substitute.
Now just for these two titles alone, in the condition that they’re in, the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection is worth the price of admission. But let’s take in the rest of the collection in chronological order.
SABOTEUR has its problems, mostly having to do with its weak script and weaker cast, and so it generally is ranked to minor-Hitchcock. The one knock-out scene for which the film will always be remembered is the Statue of Liberty sequence, which is still a model for cinematic suspense. As for the Blu-ray, it is absolutely gorgeous to look at.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT is surely one of Hitchcock richest and at the same time deeply disturbing works. Often cited as being among Hitchcock’s personal favorites, here on Blu-ray it’s given a presentation worthy of the film. This was Hitchcock’s second film for Universal, and his second with Director of Photography Joseph Valentine. Unlike the almost B-picture look of SABOTEUR, the transfer here shows off Valentine’s carefully textured and lit scenes.
The next item in the collection is ROPE, which was Hitchcock’s first venture into color and as it happened, his last film with Joseph Valentine. While it’s not a gorgeous transfer by any means, it’s the most satisfying presentation of the film on video to date. The main problems with ROPE on Blu-ray are in the flesh tones, which are often under saturated.
REAR WINDOW, yet again, can’t say enough good things about it…it’s arguably the highpoint of the collection.
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is another stunning addition on Blu-ray. Hitchcock and Bob Burks’ second VistaVision film together— they had just completed TO CATCH A THIEF when they set out to capture the Vermont countryside in the glory of its autumn colors—and the warmth and the vivid colors are done justice in this transfer. For a film that generally lacks the visual panache of many of Hitchcock’s other films of the period, Harry certainly benefits, and of course, HARRY marks Hitchcock’s first collaboration with Bernard Herrmann. The sound on this and pretty much all titles in the collection is spot on.
The next film in the collection, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is certainly one that deserved the kind of treatment given to say REAR WINDOW or VERTIGO. They share the same leading man in James Stewart, it’s another globetrotting adventure in VistaVision, with location filming in Marrakesh and London, it contains one of Hitchcock signature set pieces—the assassination at the Royal Albert Hall—but sadly, the color as presented here is all over the map…even within individual shots. You can literally see Doris Day’s dress change colors before your eyes. There’s frequently a fluctuation in the colors that is visible on the print that was used for the transfer. This is a title definitely in need of some TLC and a whole new transfer.
VERTIGO, the next in the collection has already been praised.
PSYCHO is the one Universal title that had already been released on Blu-ray previously, and the transfer here is pretty damn good. The image is sharp, there are a lot of fine details to take in. It’s a great way to show off just why the film had the impact it did in 1960.
Unfortunately, THE BIRDS is a bit of an uneven mess. Yes, there are sequences that look great… the colors and the details are enhanced nicely on Blu-ray. But given the amount of special effects shots in the film, a good number of them have not translated well to high definition.
Next to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, MARNIE is perhaps the biggest disappointment in the collection. The graininess and noise are just out of control in this one. This is another title that is in serious need of a new and improved transfer.
TORN CURTAIN was never one of Hitchcock’s more visually pleasing films. I always felt that it looked quite flat and studio bound. The transfer to Blu-ray captures the essence of the film quite well. It’s a mildly entertaining but minor Hitchcock disappointment, due in part to two terribly miscast stars and one very mediocre script.
The look of TOPAZ always appeared a welcome relief to me after TORN CURTAIN. On TOPAZ Hitchcock opted for much more location shooting and the result was a richer looking film. Like its predecessor, TOPAZ suffers from casting and script issues, but on Blu-ray you are better able to appreciate the look of the film.
FRENZY should have looked much better than it does on Blu-ray. Yet, thankfully, the pre-release issues with the re-done titles that introduced typographical errors have been corrected, and the colors are vividly presented. It’s arguably Hitchcock’s last great film and sadly, it doesn’t look as well as it should.
Now, without question the absolute worst looking transfer in the collection is probably the one that shouldn’t have been, considering it’s the youngest film of the bunch. Simply put, FAMILY PLOT has never looked worse. The film always suffered from that bad 1970s TV look. Like it was a CHARLIE’S ANGELS or ROCKFORD FILES episode. There’s no getting around the look of the era here, but the horrible job on the rear projection in the car sequences is just horrendous to look at. The halos that were always bothersome on DVD have been magnified tenfold on this one. It just may be worth holding onto your DVD for the time being, because the Blu-ray is just embarrassingly bad.
Now with all that said, do I welcome the addition of 13 Hitchcock titles to Blu-ray? Certainly. For the most part, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, REAR WINDOW, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY and VERTIGO look absolutely amazing. So it’s worth getting , but do definitely shop around for the best price. In this case, the UK edition, which is completely compatible in the US, is the better buy