MR. & MRS. SMITH
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
DIAL M FOR MURDER
THE WRONG MAN (WARNER HOME VIDEO)
VERTIGO (Re-released in the JAMES STEWART HOLLYWOOD LEGEND COLLECTION--UNIVERSAL HOME VIDEO )
Hitchcock fans have eight reasons to rejoice as Warner Home Video has generously released seven of the master's films in their dvd debut, as well as a remastered Two-Disc Special Edition of his best Warner opus STRANGERS ON A TRAIN which includes expanded bonus features.
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) is a spellbinding mix of numerous elements that highlighted some of Hitchcock's earlier and spectacularly successful "foreign intrigue" films, such as THE 39 STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES, as well as numerous future fanciful efforts such as SABOTEUR, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and the unfortunate TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ. (Indeed, as the main focus of intrepid American reporter Joel McCrea is to find the missing (Oscar-nominated) Albert Basserman, one is tempted to refer to this extravagant and fantastic film as THE GENTLEMAN VANISHES.)
There's no getting around the fact that this film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, has everything but the kitchen sink : a ingeniously conceived murder, a fevered chase, a seemingly innocent-looking spy, comedy, romance, all culminating in a major disaster. This is the kind of storyline that old-time producers liked to refer to as "ripped from the headlines", and it benefits immensely from Hitchcock's extraordinarily inventive direction, stupendous William Cameron-Menzies set design, terrific performances by the entire cast (including the continuously underrated McCrea, to whom Hitchcock grudgingly awarded the role when Gary Cooper turned it down), and a jubilantly melodic Alfred Newman score. The only thing that to my mind slows down the momentum of this film is the rather ordinary love story between McCrea and winsome Laraine Day which unnecessarily inflates the running time to a slightly too long 120 minutes. Other than that minor quibble FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is prime Hitchcock-light escapist entertainment, and not to be missed.
Hitchcock agreed to direct the breezy but lightweight domestic comedy MR. & MRS. SMITH (1941) as a favor to star Carole Lombard and did a workmanlike job with it, but there's little question that in this particular instance the Lubitsch touch would have been vastly preferable to the Hitchcock touch. Clearly, Hitchcock's ever ingenious inclinations were hamstrung by the sheer conventionality of a project distinguished primarily by the deft comedic instincts of stars Robert Montgomery and Lombard in what was tragically to be her next to last film . Taken for what it is MR. & MRS. SMITH is reasonably diverting, but prime Hitch it certainly is not.
SUSPICION (1941), on the other hand, with its story of a wallflower (Joan Fontaine) who suspects that the playboy she just married (Cary Grant) is a murderer with plans to kill her, is chock-full of the brilliant atmospheric flourishes for which Hitchcock was justifiably celebrated, and might have been among his best were it not for a grievously false ending that R.K.O. forced upon him, and single-handedly undermined the validity of what had until then been a riveting and nail-biting experience. Joan Fontaine, who won the Oscar for her meticulously-defined performance, is far more flexible and confident than she was in Hitchcock's earlier REBECCA, and Cary Grant, in the first of four collaborations with Hitchcock, skillfully reveals his proficiency with darker material. The fact is there's much to admire in this SUSPICION ---- but, oh, that ending!
STAGE FRIGHT (1950), in which drama student Jane Wyman tries to clear friend Richard Todd of being framed for murder by becoming the maid of the flamboyant and conniving stage star enacted by Marlene Dietrich, is notable mainly for the fact that it briefly returned Hitchcock to his native England, where he had directed all of his earliest triumphs, but it does suffer from a flawed decision (that Hitchcock later acknowledged) which I'll not reveal here, that does weaken the project considerably. However the performances are all top-notch and the atmosphere quite compelling, proving once again that even imperfect Hitchcock is better than no Hitchcock at all.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), however, is Hitchcock at his most deviously witty and entertaining as it tells the story of a chance encounter between a champion tennis player (Farley Granger) and a pushy playboy (Robert Walker) that turns deadly when the playboy suggests that they swap murders. With the possible exception of the overly soft and weak performance of Granger (Hitchcock had wanted the vastly more suitable William Holden for the role) and the miscasting of Ruth Roman in the thankless role of his girlfriend, this is one of the most consistently rewatchable films ever made, courtesy not only of the great Hitch's contribution but a truly memorable performance by Walker that easily puts him at the very top of a distinguished list of classic Hitchcock villains that includes Claude Rains, Ray Milland, and Anthony Perkins. The fact that Walker, in what was sadly his last completed film, was not nominated for his virtuoso performance here is nothing short of amazing until one remembers that Bogart wasn't nominated for Warner's TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and Edward G. Robinson was NEVER nominated! Be that as it may, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a masterpiece I could easily watch every month for all eternity without ever tiring of it.
When the unique brand of humor that enriches all of Hitchcock's greatest films is missing completely we end up with well-intentioned and technically proficient but bleak and joyless enterprises like I CONFESS (1953), which tells about a priest's (Montgomery Clift) inability to speak out after he hears a killer's confession due to the sacrament of penance that forbids him to speak out. I CONFESS is watchable mainly because of the performance of Clift, who for my money is the greatest of the "internal" actors, and excellent use of the rich and varied Quebec locations.
Totally bereft of his usual intensive tinkering, Hitchcock's only straight and faithful adaptation of a successful mystery play, Frederick Knott's DIAL M FOR MURDER (1955) is, by way of comparison, chock-full of humor and a subtle testament to the unparralleled brilliance of Hitchcock's placement of camera, and how it can turn what is essentially a filmed stage play confined to one apartment into a fluid and vividly cinematic motion picture experience. It doesn't hurt at all that Oscar-winner Ray Milland imbues his role of a ne'er do well husband who carefully plans to murder his faithless wife (a radiant Grace Kelly) with such a prodigious degree of matchless charm and intoxicating wit that we are with him all the way, and only Hitchcock has the ability to showcase the palpable carnal heat that resided beneath the cool exterior of the ravishing Kelly, a feat he would raise to orgasmic heights in REAR WINDOW and TO CATCH A THIEF.
Hitchcock's last Warner film THE WRONG MAN (1956) is unlike any other Hitchcock film, in that it relates an absolutely true story of a musician (Henry Fonda) who goes through the harrowing experience of a man tried for crimes committed by a lookalike robber and is photographed on the actual locations where this sad story actually happened. The central achievement of THE WRONG MAN is that it relentlessly exploits Hitchcock's lifelong fear of jails and police to an intense level which is skillfully supported by the ominous score contributed by the great Bernard Herrmann. But it must be admitted that Henry Fonda is absurdly miscast and much too mature for the role of the 39 year old Italian musician Manny Balestrero, and that his straight-faced approach to the role severely limits the degree of audience empathy necessary for the success of this dour tale. Additionally, the necessity of sticking to the facts compromises Hitchcock's incomparable skill at elaborate embroidery, and stifles the dry and toothless final third of the film to an alarmingly dispiriting degree.
Warner transfers have in the past consistently exhibited the highest degree of visual excellence and, by and large, Hitchcock fans will be elated by the crispness and clarity of the full screen black and white transfers of MR. & MRS. SMITH, SUSPICION, and STAGE FRIGHT, with only FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT exhibiting a moderately too light and slightly digitilized appearance. While both of the full screen black and white STRANGERS ON A TRAIN transfers appear to be from the same excellent source material as the initial release, there appears to be a modest improvement in crispness and black levels which could be due to an improved bit-rate. DIAL M FOR MURDER looks good in all its full screen WarnerColor glory, but the failure to release it in its original 3-D process is unfortunate, especially when one takes into account the success of the recent home video rendition of SPY KIDS 3-D which was due entirely to audience interest in the process. Also, even though the original Stereo tracks are lost it would have been nice to recreate the directional dialogue ambience anew, though the mono sound is as clear as can be. THE WRONG MAN, the only anamorphic transfer in the bunch , looks good and exhibits only small amounts of grain, but for some unfathomable reason looks even better in the full screen scenes shown in the included documentary even though the anamorphic approach is a more authentic representation of its original exhibition.
All of the Warner Hitchcock titles include "making of " documentaries that are of particular value to the uninitiated, but I cannot stress too strongly the necessity to watch them AFTER the feature, as each contain detailed "spoilers" that will hamper full enjoyment of the respective films, especially if you've never or even rarely seen them.
After Universal spent millions, under the supervision of Robert H. Harris, to restore both REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO to their original brilliance, it came as a rude shock to Hitchcock fans when the home video releases of both appeared in the incorrect ratio. REAR WINDOW, a pre-VistaVision Paramount film that was shot in the flat Academy ratio (1.33:1) was incorrectly blown up anamorphically, and the resultant grainy look must have shocked even Harris himself. To compound the felony VERTIGO, which WAS shot in widescreen VistaVision, was released to the unsuspecting public in a NON-ANAMORPHIC matted version, a further desecration of the painstakingly precise Harris restoration.
When it was announced that Universal would re-release both REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO as part of a James Stewart box set, rational minds surmised that both grievous wrongs would be corrected and that appropriate ratios would be applied to each. I am sorry to report that they have not, a fact all the more dismaying when one comprehends the amount of care and cash that went into the restoration of these first-rate Hitchcock classics. No justification for this is possible.