Did the Master of Suspense Make the Best Movies of All Time?

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There was a time when Alfred Hitchcock was considered a mere populist entertainer. Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and others before him, his early work didn’t click with intellectual minds -- they found nothing to praise in his lurid stories of murder, mystery and shocks.

Family Plot

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Robert Cummings, Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, Sean Connery, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Theresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Shirley Maclaine, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter
Distributor: Universal
Rated: NR
Release date: 2012-10-30

How does one begin to describe the influence of Alfred Hitchcock in cinema? From the countless references to his movies in the works of directors like Claude Chabrol and Brian de Palma, to the undeniable way in which he shaped what we think of as “suspense”, the legendary director is perhaps the most iconic filmmaker of all time. Trying to narrow Hitch’s work into a few different themes, subjects or periods would be doing a disservice to the man who ignited the brilliant minds who, in the '60s, created the “auteur theory” and inspired the work of scholars like Andrew Sarris who changed the landscape of film theory.

But let’s not go that far back in time, Hitchcock remains such an enigmatic figure that just in 2012 he’s been the subject of two biopics -- The Girl and Alfred Hitchcock -- both of which explore different aspects of his life (one deals with his misogynistic obsessions, the other with his dark creative impulses) but perhaps the most interesting Hitchock event this year is the release of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray.

As part of Universal Studio’s 100th anniversary festivities, the studio has put together a stunning set featuring 15 of the master’s most famous movies (13 of them making their Blu-ray debut) ranging from 1942 to his last feature in 1976. The high quality of the movies is undeniable (did Hitchcock ever make a really “bad” movie?), but some might be put off by the title Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection which suggests the set is an ultimate collection, when the truth is that not all the movies here are masterpieces... or are they?

All of the movies in this set are part of Universal’s library, some like North by Northwest only incidentally (after what must’ve been an interesting conversation with Warner Bros. executives), and as such it makes sense that the studio is so proud of this collection. Yet for every work of art like Vertigo, we run into films that are a tad more problematic like Topaz, which over the years hasn’t really gained the prestige of latter Hitchcock movies like Frenzy. Some diehard Hitchcock fans will express their partiality towards the British movies, others will show off their knowledge by praising his silent movies (most of which remain out of print, some of which remain lost) and for all the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood movies, Hitchcock’s filmography would feel incomplete without the Oscar-winning To Catch a Thief, which isn’t included here, either.

For years film scholars, critics and even psychoanalysts have suggested that as a whole, Hitchcock’s oeuvre is nothing if not fascinating, with every single movie presenting us with at least one original idea or concept worthy of study. While taking a look at the movies in this set that feel out of place under the label of “masterpiece”, we come to the realization that this might not be far from true; or is it just another “ploy” in deifying a man considered by some as the most overpraised filmmaker in history?

In Robin Wood’s seminal Hitchcock’s Films, the author posed the question, “Why should we take Alfred Hitchcock seriously?”; nowadays this question can’t be read without detecting a whiff of blasphemy, but we have to remember that there was a time when the director was considered a mere populist entertainer. Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and others before him, Hitchcock’s early work didn’t click with intellectual minds who found nothing to praise in his lurid stories of murder, mystery and shocks. Because of this, we might be able to say that Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection does this idea justice, even if unintentionally, because it contains those of his works that were made only after the time when critics began analyzing his work under a different light.

Saboteur (1942)

Let’s take Saboteur, for example. In this 1942 thriller, Robert Cummings stars as Barry Kane, a man who spends the entire movie trying to prove he did not start a fire in an airplane plant. The story isn’t as elaborate as some of his further thrillers, and the B-list cast doesn’t always “get” the delicious dark humor injected subtly throughout the screenplay (“Whenever the hero isn’t portrayed by a star, the whole picture suffers,” said Hitchcock). Yet further viewings reveal the film as a richly layered entertainment in which we perceive the extreme paranoia of the era (production on Saboteur began a few weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbor) especially obvious in the now iconic Hitler “cameo”.

If Saboteur isn’t precisely a landmark work in his career, it’s impossible to imagine North by Northwest existing without it. Francois Truffaut suggested that the latter was nothing if not a remake of the former, an allegation Hitchcock didn’t deny, instead steering the subject towards how all he wanted was to encompass America in both pictures. Both films feature exciting climaxes in some of the country’s most iconic monuments, and both deal with men who are accused of crimes they did not commit. This fear of men -- never women -- losing control and having trouble regaining it, is one of the master’s most recurring topics. It's a kind of fear which can be followed all the way to the controlled nature of a show like Mad Men set around the time when these movies were made; a time when such fear was still being digested by audiences.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt is always mentioned as Hitchcock’s favorite film; however, he once explained that this was a misunderstanding due to the fact that he’d said he liked it slightly more because it was the only of his films no one had troubles with. Set in a small California town, the film stars Teresa Wright as Charlie, a young woman who is convinced that her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), is a murderer. The movie explores the dark side of smalltown America in a humorously perverse way. Like he would do in some of his greatest future films, this was perhaps the first where Hitchcock manipulated us in such a way that we suddenly found ourselves rooting for a villain. How can we not root for Joseph Cotten, even when he’s trying to get rid of his innocent niece?

Shadow of a Doubt marked one of the first instances in American cinema when audiences were being seduced by pure evil, yet came out of the theaters with a sense of pure joy. The film remains an object of study for psychoanalysts who are fascinated by Hitchcock’s suggestion that Charlie and Uncle Charlie are nothing if not two sides of the same coin. This is an experiment perpetuated to our time, even in family movies like Up, which features a villain and hero practically named the same.

Shadow of a Doubt also epitomized the way in which Hitchcock used buildings and houses as representations of the mind. The dark stairway immediately reminds us of the house in Psycho and the overpowering apartment building in Rear Window. In Psycho the Bates manor takes on the shape of a fully formed subconscious where, as Slavoj Zizek suggests, we can easily identify the id, ego and superego with its combination of hidden levels, staircases and doors that open when we least expect it.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho is often thought of as Hitchcock’s most famous picture, and with reason, the black and white thriller not only openly introduced the '60s to sex and murder, it also marked the path for independent film productions (although this is a topic that deserves an essay of its own). Psycho is probably the most famous in this Blu-ray set and is continuously brought up as one of the key pieces of the era when audiences and critics alike began realizing that commercial films could also be art. Upon its release the film shocked audiences in a way that hasn’t diminished with the passing of time. Yet as in some of his earliest works. there is nothing in Psycho that wasn’t explored or suggested before.

In Vertigo for example, he had already started playing with the idea that sex and death were deeply connected -- even interdependent in a way -- in Psycho he toyed with the idea of necrophilia as a way to bypass impotence, and similarly in Rear Window he had used an obsession with death as a way to negate erectile dysfunction. But where in one he found a cure for his hero by using art as a savior, in the other one he made an art out of our inefficiency in capturing time. Judging from the way in which he revisited themes over and over again, can we then say that Hitchcock was in the constant search of creating his one true masterpiece?

Unlike other genius filmmakers like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, Hitchcock pretty much always had the power to do whatever film he wanted. In a time when it was unthinkable to give anyone full creative control over a movie, Hitchcock bent studio and censorship rules in order to deliver exactly what he wanted. In Rope for example, he not only experimented with long takes, he also made an entire movie with a predominantly homosexual cast and crew. One can only grin at the idea of watching the master direct scenes with James Stewart -- an icon of all-American goodness -- discussing murder with two homosexual actors playing homosexual murderers.

But even in his most experimental works, Hitchcock always preserved his need to entertain. What is Marnie, for example, if not an exploration of frigidity disguised as a baroque romance? Elements like these have always made it almost impossible to determine what makes a Hitchcock movie a masterpiece. It took almost 60 years for critics to not only start valuing Vertigo, but also to name it the best picture ever made. Is the powerful title of this Blu-ray set suggesting, then, that it won’t be until the year 2030 when we will finally embrace the brilliance of Torn Curtain or Topaz? Do films become masterpieces only as they age? Or do they become masterpieces when we age?

How does the work of someone like Hitchcock remain relevant in a world where horror equals blood, guts and gore? How do his views of love remain both so terrifying and romantic? Would it be possible for a filmmaker nowadays to pull off Hitchcock’s homophobic undertones without feeling offensive? Was the master a product of his time or in fact the producer of an era? Trying to capture the essence of Alfred Hitchcock’s work in a single concept or idea is a task that should be saved for the truly brave and even when the title of this boxset results slightly problematic, the truth is that even after watching the movies on endless occasions, even the harshest of skeptics will find themselves finding themselves agreeing that Hitchcock was, indeed, a master.

One can almost imagine Hitchcock grinning as we ponder on what exactly comprises a masterpiece in the first place.

On the extras: after a short delay in its release, Universal has made absolutely sure that Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection became the most important Blu-ray release of the year. Restoration on the 13 films new to HD is miraculous, with the black and whites of films like Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt appearing as vibrant as the stunning Technicolor of The Birds and Vertigo. Most of the extra features have been imported from the DVD version of The Masterpiece Collection and if we have to nitpick, perhaps a little more attention should’ve been paid to the extras in Vertigo, particularly after it became the object of controversy as it dethroned Citizen Kane as the greatest movie of all time in the Sight and Sound poll conducted this year.

The only new feature to this boxset is a documentary found on the disc for The Birds, which tries to cement its status as a worthy follow-up to Psycho. With 15 discs containing some of the most thrilling movies ever made, it’s impossible to deny this boxset of its status as a true necessity for any film buff’s collection.

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