Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors to ever walk the earth, and perhaps my second favorite filmmaker following Stanley Kubrick. Innovative, brilliant and incredibly consistent, the master of suspense truly had a hold on his craft that has often been imitated but never exceeded. And with an infectious, almost giddy sense of humor about even the most terrifying ideas, Hitchcock was a one of a kind Hollywood personality.
The five films here are some of the best work of the man's career and while quick reviews don't do these movies justice, you can rest assured that every one of these are worth checking out if you already haven't.
Amazingly, REAR WINDOW might be more relevant today than when it was released in 1954. A suspense thriller wrapped in commentary on privacy and voyeurism, Hitchcock’s film has a keen eye towards reality TV decades before there was reality TV.
But the pop culture nods do not distract from what amounts to a very effective film. A claustrophobic tale of building suspense, REAR WINDOW is engaging and engrossing throughout despite its one-locale setting. Greatly aided by some amazing production design, Hitchcock really plays on the POV-nature of the tale, with James Stewart observing everything through his apartment window. Though the entire movie pretty much takes place there, and mostly just uses diagetic sounds, it never feels stale. In fact the final climax of the film is a master class in building tension. (Take heed, modern filmmakers!)
While entertaining in their own right, each apartment tenant, from the newlywed couple to Miss Loneleyhearts, is also a comment on Jeff or a part of his personality. That dichotomy lends a lot to his relationship with Grace Kelly, who doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time but makes a big impression. (Not surprising for the stunningly gorgeous former Princess of Monaco).
From the hypnotic opening credits until the shocker ending, VERTIGO is another flawless, effortless exercise from the director and perhaps my favorite out of all his films.
VETIGO is a fantastic mystery and noir in its own right, but it's also one of the great films about obsession. Hitchcock had an amazing ability to turn your favorite lovable actors in to somewhat jerks and still make you care for them. Perennial nice guy Jimmy Stewart takes a darker turn here as a neurotic man growing infatuated with the beautiful subject of his case, turning in one of the best performances of his career.
A lot has been said about Hitchcock's treatment of women (onscreen and on set) and you can see that threaded throughout this film. Kim Novak plays something of an elusive femme fatale for the first half of VERTIGO, but as Stewart becomes more and more possessive and the story unravels further, she caters more and more to the man's whims (even dyeing her hair blond, Hitch's preferred color). The director's gender themes may be controversial to some, but here it works to the benefit of the characters and the story.
Filmed in Vistavision, the colors in VERTIGO are amazing and provide a nice visual backdrop for the story to take hold, from the lush outdoor scenes to the blood-red rooms. It's just a striking movie inside and out (not to mention a driving tour of San Francisco if you've never visited the city).
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
With the crop dusting plane sequence and the nail biting Mt. Rushmore climax, NORTH BY NORTHWEST features some of the most famous scenes in Hitchock's career, but it also employs a lot of the director's go-to themes and tropes, combining them effectively in to one taut thriller: mistaken identity, paranoia, fear/distrust of authority, and of course the almighty MacGuffin.
While the contents of the microfilm may not be important, that doesn't stop the movie's mad rush to get it and that non-stop chase is ever so satisfying. This is Hitch's great adventure film and it definitely has an appropriate sense of style to it (almost as a precursor to the Bond films), from the costumes to the script. The dialogue is spitfire in places and clever throughout, performed expertly by a stellar cast.
Cary Grant is a blast in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. He's serious when he needs to be, but he's also clearly having fun playing a drunk, a smooth talking playboy and a mischief maker. (The auction scene always puts a smile on my face.) Eva Marie Saint is able to keep up with him through all the twists and turns of the script and the banter between them makes the rushed romance work a lot more than it should. (Hitch's coy way of dealing with sexuality on screen is not handled better than with the last shot here.) Plus, seeing a suave, young Martin Landau just makes me love this movie even more.
Hitchcock's most famous film and what many would call his masterpiece is an undisputed classic in the horror genre, groundbreaking for many reasons and remaining so today.
PSYCHO defies conventions at almost every turn, not the least of which is its depiction of sexuality and violence. Part of me wishes I could've seen the film cold in the context of its release in 1960, because I'm sure the way in which Hitchcock continually pulls the rug out from under the audience must've been a real shock. I've written essays on how brilliant the shower scene plays out shot by shot, but to see it without any prior knowledge or parody, was probably even more effective. But its where the story goes from the famous murder sequence that really shows the brilliance of PSYCHO. I can imagine the psychiatrist's final summation and Anthony Perkin's perfect smile in the last scene being a punch to the gut right before people left the theater. Murderous insanity, Oedipal issues, crossdressing…they just don't make 'em like they used to.
Even a few lackluster sequels and one ill-advised remake can't keep a true classic like this down.
Another one of Hitchcock's favorite tactics was to take everyday, comforting things like merry-go-rounds and movie theaters, and turn them in to settings of terror. That strategy works best in THE BIRDS. You can't watch this movie and not be weary of Mother Nature for at least a few days.
Hitchcock takes Daphne du Maurier's short story and amps up the tension tremendously, completely altering the text to fit his specific and proven sensibilities. There are some truly horrifying sequences here, where the violence is both implied and shown. (The man lighting a cigar in the puddle of gas left a big mark on me as a child.) The bird attacks are still disturbing, especially with how indiscriminate they are toward children and the elderly. The effects, while outdated, still work due to how they were used sparingly and in the right context.
Unlike similar stories about the horror and revolt of nature, like THE HAPPENING or even BIRDEMIC, THE BIRDS isn't preaching an agenda or even pushing a specific message. It makes you think and consider what you're seeing, but doesn't hit you over the head. Like with most Hitchcock, the movie's ability to entertain and elicit a serious emotional reaction is what's really important.
This "Essentials Collection" DVD set is a crock. I have no idea what prompted this blatant repackaging, labeled as a "Limited Edition," but each movie comes with a fraction of the special features from previous releases. (Check out the Legacy Series for comparison.) If you don't already own the films, then you're better off waiting a year or two until the eventual Blu-Ray releases.
The one positive about this set is that it does come with some nice postcard posters for each film, which might be nice to decorate your office, but not to justify buying this package.
REAR WINDOW Ethics (55:08): This hour long documentary goes in to great details about the filming of the movie, as well as its ongoing legacy. You get interviews with a lot of fun people, including Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, filmmakers like Curtis Hanson, Peter Bogdonovich and some of the cast (including Miss Torso!). And you really have to hear Bogdanovich's Hitchcock elevator story.
A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes (13:11): The writer shares some of his personal experiences with Hitch, both professional and off the set.
Production Photos, Production Notes and Trailers.
Feature Commentary with Associate Producer Herbert Coleman, Restoration Team Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, and Other VERTIGO Participants: Since Coleman was directly involved with making the picture, obviously he has the most interesting stuff to share. Everyone else contributes, but it feels like perhaps one too many cooks in the kitchen.
Obsessed with VERTIGO (33:14): This 1997 documentary originally aired on AMC and features everyone from Scorsese to the cast and crew talking about the film's legacy and the painstaking restoration process that helped preserve it for future generations.
Foreign Censorship Ending (2:07): In some countries, it was actually illegal for a film's murderer to get away with it, so Hitch was forced to shoot this additional scene showing a radio broadcast suggesting Elster was close to being captured for the murder.
Production Notes, Production Art and Trailers
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
Commentary by writer Ernest Lehman: The screenwriter is fun to hear and has some great personal stories about working with Hitchcock, but he's clearly watching the movie for the first time in a while and regurgitates plot summaries and cookie cutter comments like, "Oh wow, I remember that!"
Music Only Track: Don't get me wrong, I love Bernard Hermann's score for the film, but I don't think I would actually ever watch the film with this option. Too many stretches of silence. You're better off buying the soundtrack.
The Release of Psycho (7:45): This original newsreel footage from the film's release features Hitchcock promoting the film and insisting that no one enters the movie after it starts. Smart man.
The Shower Scene (2:32): This is the shower scene with and without music. Yes, music is important.
The Shower Scene: Storyboards by Saul Bass (4:11): I'm sure that it took a lot of planning to achieve this masterful sequence, but storyboards are still boring.
Production Notes, Production Art, Production Photographs and Trailers.
Deleted Scene (4:21): This "scene" between Melanie and Mitch was shot but lost, so you get to read script pages and look at photographs and imagine finished it in your mind.
Original Ending (3:41): This sequence detailing a bit more of their getaway was never shot but you can again look at the script and storyboards.
Tippi Hedren's Screen Test (9:57): This was very cool—a very relaxed interview with Hedren who does multiple costume changes and seems to be having fun.
THE BIRDS is Coming (1:17): An original newsreel from the film's release promoting the movie and a "pigeon derby."
Suspense Story (1:55): Another original newsreel, this one featuring Hitch talking to a group of reporters
Production Photos, Production Notes, Storyboards, and Trailers.
Extra Tidbit: Hitchcock's father once sent him to a police station with a note asking the officer to lock him up for ten minutes as punishment for behaving badly. This might explain why the filmmaker clearly hates policeman in all of his movies.