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Sight and Sound (2001) - Home Movies: Playback: Late Great Hitchcock




Late great Hitchcock

The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock; USA 1963; Universal/ Region 2; Certificate 15; 115 minutes; Aspect Ratio 1.33:1; Features: 'All about The Birds' making-of documentary, Tippi Hedren's screen test, two Universal news stories, trailer, deleted scene storyboard, alternative ending sketches and storyboards, production stills, production notes *


Alfred Hitchcock; USA 1964; Universal/ Region 2;Certificate 15; 126 minutes; Aspect Ratio 1.33:1; Features: 'The Trouble with Mamie' making-of documentary, trailer, production stills, production notes *

Torn Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock; USA 1966; Universal/ Region 2; Certificate 15; 123 minutes; Aspect Ratio 1.33:1; Features: 'Tom Curtain Rising' making-of documentary, scenes scored by Bernard Herrmann, trailer, art gallery, production notes *


Alfred Hitchcock; USA 1969; Universal/ Region 2; Certificate PG; 136 minutes; Aspect Ratio 1.33:1; Features: 'Topaz: An Appreciation'by Leonard Maltin, three alternative endings, storyboards, production stills, trailer, production notes *


Alfred Hitchcock; UK1972; Universal/ Region 2; Certificate 18; no minutes; Aspect Ratio i.78:1; Features: 'The Story of Frenzy' making-of documentary, trailer, art gallery, production notes *

Family Plot

Alfred Hitchcock; USA 1976; Universal/ Region 2; Certificate PC; 116 minutes; Aspect Ratio i.Syt; Features: 'Plotting Family Plot' making-of documentary, storyboards, art gallery, two trailers, production notes *

The second tranche of Universal's Hitchcock collection presents us with the long-standing critical problem of the master's twilight years. The titles for review here undoubtedly describe a career decline, but how steep or sudden it was and what its probable causes were remain questions as fascinating as the sequences occurring throughout these films which, though fewer and farther between, still display genius.

The Birds and Marnie are both marked by the director's disappointment at not persuading Grace Kelly out of regal retirement. Her substitute, Tippi Hedren, becomes the most mannequin-like of his chilly blondes, often to wonderfully emblematic effect, yet her presence reveals how reliant Hitchcock had been on the studio contract star system, dead and buried by the time the 60s began.

Paul Newman in Tom Curtain gave Hitchcock - who notoriously regarded actors as cattle - a lesson in working with highly involved Method actors, and in having to fit in with star availability. Of course the old stager was in no mood for such collaboration, especially as, through death or disagreement, he had recently lost three of his regulars: composer Bernard Herrmann, cinematographer Robert Burks and production designer Robert Boyle. To his cost, he did without stars from that point onwards.

Tom Curtain and Topaz, its star-free successor, suffer from an obvious neurosis about the James Bond films (it was Dr. No, 1962, that persuaded Hitch to cast Sean Connery in Marnie). Topaz shows little interest in the endless talking-head scenes taken from Léon Uns' novel, but sharpens up in the action scenes picked out by Robin Wood in his seminal book Hitchcock's Films Revisited the Russian defector's escape from Sweden and the theft of the Cuban emissary's suitcase in New York. But while these do have a surrealist edge of unsettlement (at times reminiscent of late Bunuel), the overall impression is not so much of Wood's "fully characteristic, meticulously articulated 'suspense' set pieces... built on the principle of the look", but more of creaky overacting and mannered attempts to push Hitchcock's object fetishism towards Bond gadgetry. Having said that, there's a gorgeous piece of pure Hitchcock that Wood also champions: the death of the Cuban agent Topaz, a montage of gestures of controlled passion as she is killed by her Fidelista lover to save her from torture. Tom Curtain matches this with Newman's phenomenal struggle with a huge Russian hit man, where he and another agent guide the heavy into a gas oven as we watch from overhead.

The London-set serial-killer film Frenzy, though more coherent than Topaz, makes pretty unpleasant viewing for its deeply misanthropic attitude to sex, Hitchcock's quiet cynicism about human relations clearly having curdled by this point. By contrast his last film Family Plot is a bland comedy thriller, devoid of almost any characteristic traces of great talent.

As a package of DVDs, then, this has its own narrative, one that's underscored by a mixed bag of documentaries, one for each title. These range from Leonard Maltin's thin apologia for Topaz to the gossipy The Trouble with Marnie and the routine 'making-of run-through that is Tom Curtain Rising. Hitchcock's theatrical trailers also feature and Topaz has two extra alternative endings which prove how throwaway endings can be. One offers a duel in a stadium which reveals cropping of the image on this particular DVD, since neither duellist appears in the wide shot that's meant to encompass them (the aspect ratio is marked on the disc as 1.33:1 when the original film is 1.85:1). It's a pity that such an anomaly has been allowed because the technical quality otherwise is superb: pin-point sharp prints have been used and the colours - particularly in Marnie, The Birds and Torn Curtain-me rich and vivid. And though this is the decadent end of his empire of cinema, Hitchcock in decline holds more intrigue and imagination than most directors can match in their very best moments. Nick James