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National Post (25/Oct/2005) - Hitchcock's body of work is a rarity



Hitchcock's body of work is a rarity

Pick up any of his movies and you are guaranteed a thrill

Hitchcock, as we all know, was a master of movies and murder.

The director's body of work is rare in that it contains so few missteps. Pick up something, anything, by Hitchcock and you're in for a ride. Which is what makes the new box set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection such a treasure. The velvet-covered box, adorned with Hitch's famous profile, contains 14 films, the earliest being 1942's Saboteur, the latest his last, 1976's Family Plot. Hitchcock died in 1980.

The most notable omission, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, is part of The Signature Collection, last year's release of nine Hitchcock early films. But there are several top- notch works in the latest box, including the James Stewart tetralogy The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Rope and Vertigo.

Stewart is the quintessential Hitchcock hero (or anti-hero), thrown into chaos and left to puzzle out the truth. Hitchcock will occasionally give us a jump on things -- in Rope, the murder happens at the film's two-minute mark and Stewart arrives later to solve the crime -- but more often the plot is meant to baffle the viewer as much as the character. This is especially so in Vertigo, in which Stewart's retired detective Scottie Ferguson proves to be a particularly unreliable witness, and in Rear Window, in which he plays an armchair (well, wheelchair) detective who takes up arms against a sea of red herrings.

The Stewart films also illustrate Hitchcock's taste in women. They are populated with his trademark "cool blondes" -- Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Kim Novak in Vertigo and Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Then there's his penchant for setting himself obstacles. Rope is an 88-minute film shot in just nine takes, which were stitched together with carefully placed blackouts to make it appear to be one continuous shot. Rear Window is shot almost entirely from inside one apartment.

The other films in the new collection are Shadow of a Doubt, The Trouble With Harry, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz and Frenzy. Most come with a making-of, production photos and other extras. A 15th disc includes selections from the American Film Institute's salute to Hitchcock (and his droll thank-you speech), an interview with the director and two long features about the making of Psycho and The Birds.

The Birds was shot in 1963, not known as a time for special effects films outside the science-fiction genre. Still, the making- of reveals numerous tricks, including one scene that cuts seamlessly from an outdoor shot to a studio set. One of the more bizarre stories involves the crew member who fastened tiny magnets to the birds' feet so that they could be perched on the eavestrough of a house without flying away. It worked until the camera began to roll, at which point the birds tried to take flight, were restrained -- and found themselves hanging upside down from the eaves.

Combined, the two box sets make a thorough retrospective of Hitchcock's career. One of the few exclusions, which arrived on DVD for the first time on Tuesday, is Lifeboat, based on a story by John Steinbeck and taking place entirely on a lifeboat in the Atlantic after a ship is torpedoed by a German U-boat. As with many of Hitchcock's close-set stories, this one feels like a play transferred to the screen. The eight survivors range from engine room navvies to society types, and tensions are further stretched when a ninth passenger turns out to be from the enemy submarine.

If all this leaves you hitching, er, itching for more, you're in luck: Season one of Alfred Hitchcock Presents has also been released on DVD to coincide with The Masterpiece Collection. The half-hour mystery series debuted in 1955 and ran for seven seasons, plus another two in an hour-long format. The 39 episodes from the first year feature writing by Ray Bradbury, John Cheever and Roald Dahl, and performances by Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and Pat Hitchcock, Alfred's daughter.

The Case of Mr. Pelham, which Hitchcock directed, was nominated for an Emmy and showcases actor Tom Ewell reprising the meek Everyman audiences would have seen a few months earlier when he starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. The story concerns a man who thinks he has a doppelganger, and it ends with Hitchcock, who always introduced the show, being hustled off by white-coated flunkies and shouting, "But I'm the real Alfred Hitchcock!"

As if there could ever be another.