Blu-ray: ‘The Lodger’ – Alfred Hitchcock begins

The Lodger (1926) isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it’s actually his third, though it does mark his first feature produced in Britain after directing two co-productions in Germany—but even Hitchcock embraced it as the first “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He announces his arrival in the cinematic jolt of the opening scene: a close-up of a woman screaming in terror (the score on this restoration musically picks up the scream on the soundtrack), the sprawled corpse of a murdered woman, not gory but unnerving in the worm’s-eye view of the body with limbs akimbo stretching toward the lens, the rubbernecking crowd, and the flashing marquee sign visually shouting “To-Night Golden Curls,” connecting the nervous blonde showgirls of a London revue with the fair-haired victims targeted by The Avenger (beginning Hitch’s lifelong cinematic obsession with blondes).

Criterion

The Lodger, adapted by Eliot Stannard from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the play she co-wrote, draws on the legacy of Jack the Ripper for a fictionalized thriller (Hitchcock’s first) built on the atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion in a London under assault by a serial killer. It stars Ivor Novello, at the time one of Britain’s biggest entertainment superstars, as the enigmatic Lodger who takes a room in the Bunting home and June Tripp as the Bunting daughter Daisy, a blonde model at an upscale clothing store who gets close to the otherwise distant young man. Her would-be suitor Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector assigned to the case, is none-too-happy about it and his jealousy charges his suspicions about the Lodger’s unusual behavior until he targets him as a suspect.

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Blu-ray: Alfred Hitchcock Times Two and 3D

With the big Universal Hitchcock “Masterpiece” box set bumped a month to the end of October, a pair of Warner Hitchcock Blu-ray debuts now arrive ahead of the set: Dial M For Murder 3D (Warner), which includes a standard Blu-ray version, and Strangers on a Train (Warner), one of Hitch’s greatest films.

Strangers on a Train” (Warner) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s undisputed masterpieces, a thriller of demented wish fulfillment turned into a waking nightmare turns on a chance meeting. Demented playboy Bruno (Robert Walker, whose insidious insincerity is unsettling from his first scene) meets champion tennis player Guy (Farley Granger) with marriage problems (he wants out of a loveless marriage to marry Senator’s daughter Ruth Roman, but his wife to refuses to grant a divorce). Bruno spins a story of swapping murders, proceeds to kill the troublesome wife, and insists Guy return the favor… or else. Hitch loved dark doubles and this is his most sociopathic shadow.

Scripted by Raymond Chandler from the novel by Patricia Highsmith (a master of psychopathic characters and warped psychologies), it’s masterfully constructed and perfectly cast: Granger is the weakest of Hitchcock hero’s, and appropriately so as he faces the prospect of his darkest wish coming true, and Walker’s psychopathic intensity is icy and obsessive, the opposite of Granger’s nervousness. Walker has the film’s best moment as Bruno stares at Guy, the lone unmoving head in a crowd nodding back and forth with the volley of the tennis match.

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Blu-ray: ‘The 39 Steps’

The 39 Steps (Criterion), Alfred Hitchcock’s first great romantic thriller smoothly plays the “wrong man” gambit with the light, black-humored grace that would reach it’s apex in North By Northwest. The Hitch touch is all through this delightful confection: the quick-witted innocent (Robert Donat as affable Canadian tourist Richard Hanay) plunged into conspiracy, the icy blonde (Madeleine Carroll) literally handcuffed to the man who thaws in the warmth of his charm and resourcefulness, the ingenious set pieces and brilliant use of locations, and of course the world where no one is as they seem. It’s an effortless balance of romance and adventure against a picaresque landscape populated by eccentrics and social register smoothies, none of whom what they appear to be. Hitchcock would play similar games of innocents plunged into deadly conspiracies, but in this breezy 1935 classic Hitch proves that, as in any quest, the object of the search isn’t nearly as satisfying as the journey.

Criterion first released the film on DVD in 1999. They have remastered the film for Blu-ray (and an accompanying new DVD edition), which carries over the commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane and the 1937 radio adaptation with Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery from the earlier release, along with new supplements. New to this edition are the 2000 documentary “Hitchcock: The Early Years,” archival interview footage with Alfred Hitchcock from Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview, excerpts from François Truffaut’s 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock, a visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, original production design drawings, and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns.

More Blu-ray releases at Videodrone

Blu-ray: ‘Rebecca,’ ‘Notorious,’ and ‘Spellbound’ – Three By Hitchcock, By Way of Selznick

Alfred Hitchcock came to America on an exclusive contract with the famously controlling American producer David Selznick. Three of the four films from that strained partnership between the perfectionist British director and the micromanaging producer —  Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946) — arrive on Blu-ray and you can see the two creative personalities battle for control throughout.

The gloriously gothic melodrama Rebecca (MGM), a handsome marriage of the literate and the visual, remains their most financially successful collaboration and Hitchcock’s most studio-like film. Laurence Olivier delivers a fine performance as the haunted de Winter, still under the shadow of his controlling first wife even after she’s died, while Joan Fontaine’s naïve little girl in the big mansion is a bit precious but effective nonetheless.  It’s an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. Ironically, it’s Hitch’s only Oscar winner, and the Oscar went to producer Selznick; Hitch lost Best Director to John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, screen tests, two featurettes, three radio play adaptations, and archival audio interviews with Hitch.

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Double Take on TCM

“They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him. Or he should kill you. I can’t remember.”


Doubles and doppelgangers abound in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the legendary director who is almost as famous for the self-promoting media image he shaped for himself as he is for his cinematic creations. Double Take, Johan Grimonprez’s quasi-experimental meditation on (among other things) the Cold War tension of the late fifties, the space race and the culture of commercial television, turns Hitchcock into the main character of an abstract thriller about the director meeting his own double. Grimonprez “casts” Hitch from his various TV appearances as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and master of ceremonies in the trailers to Psycho and especially The Birds, and supplements his archival appearance with look-alike Ron Burrage and voice impersonator Mark Perry. Taking a break from shooting The Birds, this alternate reality Hitchcock is (we are told by Perry in a lazy Hitchcock drawl) confronted with an older version of himself from 1980 and offered sobering (if enigmatic) news from the future.

Read the complete review at Turner Classic Movies.

DVDs for 11/3/09 – The Noir and The Dead

The Dead (Lionsgate) – John Huston was not just one of the great American directors, he was the great translator of literary works from page to screen. He began his directorial career with The Maltese Falcon, not simply an iconic detective film and a defining film noir but an adaptation so precise that the previous screen versions have been long forgotten. It’s only fitting that he ended his career with an adaptation just as perfect, and insulting that after such a long wait for a DVD release, we get such a shoddy presentation. Based on a James Joyce short story featured in The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of his most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and touchy relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"
Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the rest of the guests but becomes obvious to us as Huston deftly brings us into the gathering, like an unseen guest, to witness privileged moments of intimacy. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to this happy occasion, as disappointment and regret and wistful remembrances reverberate through the songs and recitations of the gathering, but Huston’s hushed appreciation of the gathering and tender affection for the characters is sublime. Huston’s direction is pure grace, creating a world of relationships and a history of family in the rhythms and glances and comments (guarded and unguarded) of the guests. Donal McCann is particularly good as a tippling cousin who is always in danger of embarrassing himself and Dan O’Herlihy is fine as a patriarch who becomes increasingly red-faced and slurred throughout the evening. The disc quality of this long-awaited DVD debut, however, is appalling. The 1:85 aspect ratio has been shaved to fit the 16×9 widescreen format and the mastering is weak, with unstable, noisy colors and hazy resolution, adequate for a bargain-priced film but not worthy of the beauty of John Huston’s swan song. There’s no supplements, which is fine, but the film itself is cut by ten minutes (thanks to Tom Becker at DVD Verdict for identifying the missing footage, an entire sequence at the beginning of the film), for which there is no excuse. It’s still a beautiful film, but it’s not the movie that Huston released in 1987.

11/5/09 Update: Lionsgate has issued a recall for the DVD. Details here.

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Rich and Strange on TCM

Rich and Strange is a strange entry indeed in the Alfred Hitchcock filmography, but his sensibility is very much present in the stragne social satire and black comedy. I surveyed the film for Turner Classic Movies Online this month.

The dreariness of middle class life in Rich and Strange
The dreariness of middle class life in Rich and Strange

Rich and Strange, Alfred Hitchcock’s third sound feature, is a sly and strange film indeed. Made in 1931, after such early classics as The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929) and Murder! (1930) but before Hitchcock had firmly established himself as “the master of suspense,” Rich and Strange is not a thriller at all but a romantic comedy of innocents abroad directed as a satire of bourgeois complacency and cultural provincialism. The title comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is quoted in a title card early in the film that promises that our middle class married couple will “suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange.”

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DVD of the Week – Halloween 2008 edition – Hitchcock and Horror

It must have been kismet that I received my copy of the Fox Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection late, too late to feature it the week it actually came out. Because now it leads off the Halloween week MSN DVD column. Hitch wasn’t really a horror director outside of Psycho, but The Master of Suspense was a master of thrillers, and this set features his very first thriller:

The Lodger was Alfred Hitchcock’s third film, his first classic, and arguably the first “Alfred Hitchcock movie.” Moody and textured, the 1926 silent thriller stars music hall superstar Ivor Novello as a mysterious figure who arrives at a boarding house out of the foggy night. Hitch creates some of his most expressionist images (the ceiling dissolves to a man pacing above, the fog that swirls about the mysterious lodger) and introduces his murky world of guilt and innocence in the story of an eccentric figure who may be Jack the Ripper. Previously available only in inferior versions, this remastered and digitally restored edition looks superb and offers two scores: Ashley Irwin’s vivid, dramatic orchestral score, and a more somber and impressionistic one by Paul Zaza.

The set features eight films all together, including two of his early British thrillers (the classic Sabotage with Sylvia Sidney and lighter and lesser Young and Innocent), his World War II drama Lifeboat and all four films made for David Selznick: the Gothic classic Rebecca (Hitchcock’s only film to win an Oscar for Best Picture), the Gregory Peck films Spellbound and The Paradine Case, and the romantic masterpiece Notorious. Alfred Hitchcock had everything he needed to make cinema magic when he undertook Notorious: a brilliant cast of beautiful, seductive stars (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman at their most galmorous) and excellent character actors (Claude Rains and Louis Calhern), one of Hollywood’s smartest and most adept screenwriters (Ben Hecht), and best of all a producer with lots of money and class who was too busy to interfere–for once. The result is one of his most sparkling romantic thrillers, smooth and silky with a dangerous, darkly suggestive undercurrent of sex, power, and sacrifice.

The DVD is featured on my MSN column here.

Lucio Fulci’s surreal giallo masterpiece The Beyond has been out of print for years. Now Grindhouse brings their restored edition back out. Lucio “King of the Eyeball Gag” Fulci is hardly a favorite of mine, but this film is a wild, eerie, mad masterpiece. The largely incoherent plot has something to do with a turn of the century curse and a doorway to hell in the cellar of an old New Orleans hotel, but then plot in giallo is rarely more than an pretense. If you can overlook little things like wooden acting and clumsy dialogue and arbitrary twists, you’ll find an insane tale of zombies from hell invading Earth and eating their way through a cast of crucified martyrs, blind visionaries, creepy hotel handymen and befuddled cops, while a plucky pair of heroes desperately fleeing a horde of hungry undead. The blood red art direction is eerily beautiful and Fulci’s relentless long takes, punctuated by jolting shock cuts and eruptions of grotesque violence, creates a mood of sheer paranoid horror right down to the final, mind bending image. Just let yourself get carried away on the creepy visuals and it’s a surprisingly stylish treat, an eerie, edgy bit of gothic gore pitched in all it’s bone crunching, flesh ripping, organ splatting glory. But beware: this sadistic, sanguinary hell-spawn tale is for gore-hounds only.
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The Original ‘Psycho’ Thriller

Mother — what is the phrase? — isn’t quite herself today

Psycho took America completely by surprise in 1960, when middle-American theatergoers headed to the movies to see the latest offering from the director of the glamorous and sexy Rear Window and the Technicolor confection North by Northwest. Who expected the droll host of TV’s showcase for suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to get so down and dirty and tawdry?

"Psycho" - the original psycho thriller
"Psycho" - the original psycho thriller

The granddaddy of all slasher films and psycho-thrillers will never have the same impact as it did on first release. The murder of Janet Leigh has been parodied too many times to carry the same shock value for new audiences. The suggestions of sex and nudity, daring for the time, are tame next to the exhibitionism of horror cinema since the ’70s. The gruesome revelation of the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates (ingeniously intensified by a swinging light bulb sweeping shadows across the hollow sockets of her skull) reduced original audiences to shrieks. Today, such surprises are part and parcel of the horror genre.

But Hitchcock’s craft is breathtaking. The eerie atmosphere of Norman Bates’ sitting room, with stuffed and mounted birds of prey along the wall as if frozen in mid-attack, creates a tension that Hitch shatters with the brilliantly orchestrated scream of the shower murder. Shot and cut into shards like reflections in a shattered mirror, it’s a transgressive assault on the audience at its most vulnerable (in the bathroom, naked and exposed) and a masterpiece of editing (Hitch entrusted the planning and execution to Saul Bass, who also created the slashing opening credits). The screaming violins still send shivers down my spine whenever I hear them.

And then there is Anthony Perkins, Hollywood’s gentle boy next door, as the troubled Norman, a voyeur who peeps on Janet Leigh as she undresses and who squirms in the emotional iron grip of his mother, squeezing him from beyond the grave. His fidgety, increasingly disturbing performance became so identified with his image that it all but destroyed his career as a romantic lead.

Psycho is pulpy and sordid and perverse, shot in black and white on a low budget to give it the tawdry feel of a B movie, and directed with the impeccable craft of a master who knew how to shock the sensibilities and shake up the expectations of an audience. Time may have dulled the shock, but the craft is as impressive as ever.

Originally published as part of the MSN “Cadillac of” series.