You can never get too much Hitchcock, especially in October. Celebrating the spookiest month of the year wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at some of the Master of Suspense’s best works, and with Universal re-releasing a whole bunch of them on DVD as part of their ever-expanding Legacy Series most of these films have never looked or sounded better.
Recently I was given three of the Hitch’s best — 1954’s Rear Window, 1958’s Vertigo and 1960’s Psycho — to take another look and it’s doubtful fans will be disappointed. While the transfers themselves are no different than the ones found on the Special Editions released just a few years ago, the sound quality (on one) and the special features (on all three) have been decidedly improved. Let’s take a bit closer look at each title separately:
Easily one of Hitchcock’s most enduring (and most popular) titles, the James Stewart/Grace Kelly classic is as smoothly entertaining today as it was during its monstrously successful original release over half a century ago. The story of photojournalist L. B. Jefferies (Stewart), stuck in his New York apartment recuperating from a broken leg, tracking the actions of a mysterious salesmen (Raymond Burr, pre-Perry Mason) through the lens of his camera with the assistance of debutante fiancÃ© Lisa Carol Fremont (Kelly), the movie is a rush of tension, romance, laughter and shocking surprises.
Quite possibly this is one of the most oft-imitated suspense flicks ever made. Heck, current Eagle Eye dynamic duo Shia LaBeouf and D.J. Caruso coped the film almost scene for scene with their 2007 success Disturbia, while everyone from Brian DePalma (Body Double) to Steven Spielberg (Minority Report) to Michael Haneke (CachÃ©) to Michael Powell (Peeping Tom) to Frances Ford Coppola (The Conversation) have all found inspiration here at one time or another at some point during their careers.
Restored by the great Robert A. Harris in 1998, Rear Window has never looked better. The colors are crisp, sharp and electrically alive, the same as could be said about Universal’s previous DVD release. But maybe it was my copy of that previous disc, but the studio has done a bang up job on the audio track this time around. English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is one of the best I think I’ve ever heard on a standard def release, and of the three movies talked about here this is the one with the most noticeable difference on a technical issue.
The real reason for Hitchcock connoisseurs to make the upgrade, however, are the special features. Disc one contains a wonderful audio commentary from author John Fawell, while the second has a series of featurettes worth checking out most notably the fantastic original documentary “Rear Window Ethics.” Also included are some fantastic excerpts from a series of interviews conducted between Hitch and legendary French director Francois Truffaut, while “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret” is a wonderfully entertaining episode culled from the filmmaker’s popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents television program.
If you want to start an argument among cinephiles bring up the subject of Vertigo because fewer films will ever divide a room as quickly as this one does. Recently acclaimed as the number nine American Film of all time by the American Film Institute, this sinister piece of uncomforting emotional suspense is arguably the most brilliant piece of directorial slight of hand in Hitchcock’s entire career. An elegantly devastating stunner, love it or hate it this is a picture absolutely impossible to forget.
I am on the “love it” side of the room. The visual style of the piece constantly amazes me, Hitch’s use of texture, color and setting so vividly potent it knocks me senseless. I also think this is James Stewart’s finest hour, the actor delivering an emotionally shattering portrait of angst, loss, regret, pain and obsession unlike anything (save maybe his hard-boiled Western’s with director Anthony Mann) else in his legendary career.
Also restored by Robert A. Harris (this one two years earlier in 1996), Vertigo has never looked better. I remember going to Seattle’s Cinerama Theater during a re-release of the film and being completely blown away. It was like I was seeing the film for the very first time, that Technicolor explosion duplicated almost perfectly on the subsequent Collector’s Edition DVD release.
The film still looks and sounds great (again, no real difference from that previous release), and of all three films this is the one that might not quite be worthy of an upgrade. That said, the special features again impress, and while the audio commentary featuring Associate Producer Herbert Coleman and the restoration team of Harris and James C. Katz is carried over from the earlier disc, the new one with The Exorcist director William Friedkin makes this new one almost worth the price of purchase all by itself.
Other features include more of the fantastic Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, a featurette on all of the director’s personal frequent collaborations with major Hollywood movie stars like Stewart and a great documentary on the film’s making and restoration, “Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece.” Also included is another episode from the television show, “The Case of Mr. Pelham,” which — sadly — isn’t really one of my favorites.
What is there to say about Psycho that hasn’t been said before? Would John Carpenter have made Halloween without this for inspiration? Would Jason Vorhees ever ventured into Crystal Lake? Would we, as audience members, be so fascinated with shows like “C.S.I” or “Law and Order” and their continued quest to capture the worst of the worst? I can’t really say.
What I can say is that Hitchcock’s saga of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his twisted relationship with his invalid “mother” is as horrifically disturbing now as it probably ever was back in 1960. Countless imitations or no, this movie packs a major wallop, Janet Leigh’s notorious shower scene only one of the film’s magnificently unsettling set pieces guaranteed to send shivers straight up a viewers spine.
Again, picture and sound are the same as the previous special edition release, and that’s not even remotely a bad thing. The movie looks fantastic and packs a major wallop, Bernard Herman’s signature score reverberating through my apartment like Wagnerian Opera forcing me to curl underneath my blankets like a timidly frightened schoolgirl cowering at sinister shadows in the closet.
As for the special features, other than the audio commentary from author and Psycho historian Stephen Rebello (which, unlike the similar commentary track on Rear Window, is a bit too professorial to be 100-percent interesting start to finish), most of the extras on the first disc are all carryovers from the earlier edition. The second is where the action is, another excerpt from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews intimately diving into all of the pictures delectable intricacies. The two making-of docs are also quite excellent, while the episode “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one of the absolute best from the director’s television program, easily my absolute favorite of three I watched while viewing these three films.
Are Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho worthy of the upgrades? For true fans of the Alfred Hitchcock, I do think the additional special features — including those Alfred Hitchcock Presents television episodes — and the excellent audio commentaries make them all at least worth a look. But the only one I can say is a must-buy is the first one, the noticeable improvements in sound immediately sending the disc to the head of this trio’s class.
That said, all three are fantastic films and definitely worth owning, and if you don’t have any of them in your own personal DVD libraries then what the heck are you waiting for? Run down to your local story or logon to Amazon and pick them up today.