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USA Today (01/Jul/2001) - Getting Hitched



Getting Hitched

What can you say about a director who churned out pictures for 51 years without winning an Academy Award? At first glance, you might call him a hack, until you realize that the portly gentleman in question is Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the best-known director in cinematic history, at least so far as audiences are concerned. Moreover, his films as far back as 1935'The Thirty-Nine Steps" are still watched and enjoyed today. And, in all fairness, he did receive five best director Oscar nominations en route.

For Hitchcock aficionados and film students, Universal Studios Home Video has a special treat the DVD release of two collections: "Best of Hitchcock Volume 1" and "Best of Hitchcock Volume 2," each containing seven of his movies and a four-episode disc of shows from his 1950s TV series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Included are a quintet of his acknowledged all-time classics, a pair of golden oldies, a couple of stabs at black comedy that don't quite work, and five that are entertaining, though flawed, not Hitch at the top of his game.

The Birds (120 minutes, 1963), though one step below "Vertigo,' "Psycho," and "Rear Window," nevertheless remains a Hitchcock classic, marred only by a wooden performance by Tippi Hedren, who Hitch futilely tried to make another Grace Kelly. Based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, it was supposed to be an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," but the logistics and budget made this unfeasible. The terrorizing of a small northern California town is never explained, and the birds unaccountably become a malevolent, deadly force without any reason, unlike science fiction films of the era that tended to blame such phenomena on the atomic bomb or ecological degradation. The "Making of . . ." feature naturally concentrates on how Hitchcock's crew got the birds to do what they wanted them to, revealing that many of them were stuffed; some were sewn to people's clothing, especially for the horrifying scene when they attack a group of schoolchildren; and others were photographed in a San Francisco dump and then superimposed over the set. Hitchcock's insistence on storyboarding every scene is vividly illustrated in demonstrating how a fire triggered by a cigarette dropped into a gasoline spill at a service station was filmed, and in the original ending, showing the survivors gingerly driving through a town completely taken over by the birds, that ultimately was left on the cutting room floor.

Vertigo (128 minutes, 1958) was not well-received when it originally came out, but subsequently has become regarded as a masterpiece and one of Hitchcock's most personal films. From Saul Bass' famous spiral vortex in the main title sequence, to Bernard Herrmann's lush orchestral score, to the stunning backdrop of San Francisco and its surrounding countryside, the film is enthralling to watch. James Stewart's obsessed, acrophobic detective is counterpointed extremely well by Kim Novak in the finest performance of her career. (The part had been created for Vera Miles, who Hitchcock planned to make a major star, but she had to give up the role when she became pregnant and never made it past supporting-role status, despite a meaty role in "Psycho.") "Vertigo" had almost been lost over the years, its negative badly faded, until a two-year, $1,000,000 restoration in 1996, headed by preservationists Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, brought it back to what Hitchcock intended. Their efforts are saluted in an accompanying featurette, "Obsessed with Vertigo."

Rear Window (115 minutes, 1954), is breathtakingly bright on the screen, thanks to another restoration job by Harris and Katz, as amply illustrated in one of the featurettes. This classic salute to voyeurism, which earned Hitchcock his fourth Oscar nomination, was brilliantly shot on a single set, the camera never leaving wheelchair-bound Stewart's apartment and the courtyard he spies on across the way, ultimately uncovering a murder. As his socialite girlfriend, Grace Kelly is luminous, far outstripping every one of the blondes Hitchcock was obsessed with, with the possible exception of Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious," and Thelma Ritter's wisecracking physical therapist helps leaven the tension. "Rear Window Ethics," the "Making of . . ." featurette, dwells largely on the logistics of the set, analyzing the roles of the various occupants in each apartment; recounting how the set had to be lit for four different times of day-morning, afternoon, twilight, and evening; and describing how they had to dig through the floor of Paramount's largest soundstage to accommodate the height of the building under Stewart's scrutiny.

Psycho (109 minutes, 1960) will go down in cinematic history for the famed shower scene if nothing else. Hitchcock decided that the picture would be too gory if filmed in color, so he shot it in black and white, primarily using a crew that had worked with him on his television series, and brought the movie in for less than $1,000,000. Norman Bates, as embodied by Anthony Perkins, became one of Hollywood's emblematic characters, leading to a trio of non-Hitchcock-helmed sequels more than two decades later, none of which hold a candle to the original. Herrmann's staccato score with its shrieking violins had audiences jumping out of their seats, ratcheting up the suspense and helping Hitchcock trigger screams from viewers every time Norman's "mother" struck. The "Making of . . ." feature largely dwells on the shower scene, offering entertaining tidbits, such as the fact that Janet Leigh was strategically covered in moleskin in the "nude" shots, though her body double was not afforded the same privilege; that was chocolate syrup swirling down the drain in place of blood; and Perkins wasn't even present during the filming of the scene, his actions being picked up at a separate time. Ah, movie magic. Hitchcock earned his final Oscar nomination for the film's direction, and movie buffs can even forgive the fact that "Psycho" subsequently led to a seemingly unending barrage of slasher pictures of the "Halloween:"Nightmare on Elm Street," and "Friday the Thirteenth" ilk.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (120 minutes, 1955), the final of the "big five" in this collection, was a remake of his 1934 British film that had Peter Lorre in the assassin's role. The new version starred Stewart and a surprisingly effective Doris Day in a rare dramatic role, and actually got Hitchcock to shoot in Morocco, despite his well-documented aversion to go on location. Designed to come to a climax during a concert in London's Albert Hall, the picture made Herrmann's music an integral part of the story, even putting him up on the podium to conduct the symphonic orchestra as the assassin awaits the crucial dash of the cymbals. "The Making of. . ." feature dwells largely on these three elements: the casting of Day, filming in Marrakesh, and orchestrating the ending.

Shadow of a Doubt (108 minutes, 1942), the first of the golden oldies, is reputedly Hitchcock's favorite. He delighted in bringing menace into a small town, in the person of Joseph Cotten, the genial Uncle Charlie who is in actuality the Merry Widow Killer. Despite Hitch's soft spot for the movie, it is bucolic and talky, lacking in the action of most of his later works. Reminiscences by Teresa Wright and Hume Cronyn do little to pep up "Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock's Favorite Film.

Saboteur (109 minutes, 1942) uses a plotline of an innocent man being pursued across the country seeking to clear his name which Hitchcock returned to often, from "The 39 Steps" to "North by Northwest"to "Frenzy." Robert Cummings is somewhat lightweight as the protagonist almost single-handedly bringing down a Nazi-backed sabotage ring, but the villains are neatly portrayed, with a suave Otto Kruger following a pattern echoed by Claude Rains in "Notorious" and, especially, James Mason in "North by Northwest." The "Saboteur: A Closer Look" feature is at its best depicting the climactic confrontation on the arm of the Statue of Liberty, with Normal Lloyd, who played the title role, taking viewers through how it was filmed. Hitchcock virtually re-created the scene in the Mount Rushmore sequence from "North by Northwest."

Rope (81 minutes, 1948), the first of the not quite top-of-the-line films in the collection, suffers mostly through its single-set rendition of what clearly was a stage play. This updated version of the Leopold-Loeb case of the 1930s bristles with Nietzschean philosophy and unacknowledged homosexuality, softpedaled in light of the iron-fisted censorship exerted by Hollywood's Hays Office. Stewart seems uncomfortable with his role as the killers' mentor, and there is simply too much sitting around and talking in a static setting. "Rope Unleashed," the accompanying featurette, emphasizes Hitchcock's decision to photograph it like a play, shooting an entire reel at a time without editing, each scene ending with the camera focused on someone's back so the next scene could be spliced seamlessly An interview with Arthur Laurents, the openly gay screenwriter, is condemnatory of Hitchcock's direction and treatment of the homosexual aspects of the John Doll and Farley Granger characters, but it should be remembered that he is speaking from a half-century-later perspective.

Marnie (131 minutes, 1964) is the weakest of this group, with a muddied psychological plot, a miscast Sean Connery, and an overwrought performance by Hedren. Even though director Peter Bogdanovich praises the film in "The Trouble with Marnie," the accompanying featurette, it is most interesting for some of the sidebars, such as the fact the picture was conceived to lure Kelly out of retirement (wisely, she declined); screenwriter Evan Hunter was fired when he refused to write a brutal rape scene (his successor, Jay Presson Allen, had no problems with it; and this was the end of the long collaboration between Herrmann and Hitchcock, who hated his proposed score.

Torn Curtain (128 minutes, 1966) represented Hitchcock's attempt to replace his old standbys Stewart and Cary Grant with the more-modern Paul Newman. However, the method actor chafed under Hitchcock's direction, and co-star Julie Andrews seemed uncomfortable in her primarily stand-around role. The picture is largely rescued by a pair of scene-stealers in Wolfgang Kieling's slang-talking East German intelligence agent, brutally disposed of in the picture's signature piece, a murder committed with shovel and gas stove, and Lila Kedrova as a dotty, self-proclaimed countess desperately seeking a sponsor to help her immigrate to the U.S. "Torn Curtain Rising" is a rather thin featurette, dwelling primarily on Hitchcock's problems with his two leads and the difficulty in putting together a coherent script.

Topaz (143 minutes, 1969) is an entertaining film that never managed to attract an audience, as viewers may have been turned off by the fact that it had no recognizable stars among its international cast. Nevertheless, hinging on political intrigue and sexual infidelity in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the picture has numerous exciting moments and strong performances, especially by John Vernon as a ruthless Cuban intelligence officer. "Topaz: An Appreciation" is narrated by film historian Leonard Maltin, who thinks highly of the picture. He relates how the movie was greeted hostilely by preview audiences, so the studio recut it. Further, the picture wound up going through three endings before they settled on one. The two also-rans are shown, one of which is far more satisfying and Hitchcock-like than the version that "Topaz" wound up utilizing.

Frenzy (116 minutes, 1972), Hitchcock's penultimate film, represents his stab at becoming more "modern, " By incorporating violence and nudity to a degree he never had previously, Hitch was attempting to compete with directors taking advantage of more-liberal times, This tale of an ex-RAF officer trying to clear his name and track down the real serial killer terrorizing London plays well, spotlighting an unfamiliar, all-English cast. The running gag of police inspector Alec McCowen suffering through the various dishes his wife (Vivien Merchant) has come up with at her avant-garde cooking class balances the tension and is an utter delight. "The Story of Frenzy" celebrates Hitchcock's return to London to film, but the rest is an assortment of talking heads, including leads Jon Finch, Barry Foster, and Anna Massey, and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer.

The Trouble with Harry (100 minutes, 1955) and "Family Plot" are both anomalies, with Hitchcock abandoning the suspense films he was famous for to dabble in black comedy that he handled so successfully in his TV shows. Neither, though, seems to work. "Harry," a meandering movie about a stray corpse that refuses to stay buried, turns repetitious early, not unexpected for a one-gag story. "The Trouble with Harry Isn't Over," the accompanying featurette, is actually more interesting thanks to an assortment of anecdotes, including how the Vermont locations suffered an early freeze, so leaves were shipped back to the studio, pasted on trees, and painted to match the season, and how some of the scenic shots were so effective that they were later used on the television series of "Peyton Place."

Family Plot (121 minutes, 1976), Hitchcock's last picture, turned out more frantic than funny, with William Devane, Karen Black, Bruce Dern, and Barbara Harris all scurrying around trying to make sense of interlocking plots-one about a con man and a phony psychic, the other about a bungled kidnapping. Assistant director Howard Kazanjian's narration of "Plotting Family PloC is moderately interesting, with such backstage gossip as the story that Hitchcock wanted Al Pacino, but settled for Dern because he was cheaper (Hitch never got over having to pay Newman more than $1,000,000), and the fact that Roy Thinnes was cast when Devane was tied up with a different project, then replaced five days into the shooting when Devane did become available. Thinner excoriated Hitchcock for firing him, maintaining that it destroyed his chance for stardom.

Each set of the Alfred Hitchcock Collection runs a suggested $99.98. Volume I consists of "Psycho," "Rear Window," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Topaz," "Rope," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Family Plot," and a quartet of episodes from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," the most enjoyable being the delightful "Lamb to the Slaughter," with its deadly leg of lamb. Volume II has "Vertigo," "The Birds:'"Torn Curtain," "Marnie," "The Trouble with Harry," "Saboteur," "Frenzy," and four more TV shows.