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Retro Rental: ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection’ — Blood and Champagne

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection
Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions/Universal Studios

[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you The Retro Rental,  an older film on disc or download that connects with the here-and-now. ...]

Let us, for now, put aside the question of if Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors of all time — he was, but… — and instead contemplate how no director before or after Hitchcock has been as public, and as perfectly matched to their public persona. Sure, Scorsese and Spielberg and Shyamalan all get out in front of their flicks, to an extent, but not in the clever, in-on-a-joke way that Hitchcock became Hitchcock. It is, interestingly, one of the things that gets in the way of actually looking at the films — Hitchock’s life was more fractured and flawed and unforgiving than that of even most directors. But this new Universal set, ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection,’ confronts you with such a dense chunk of his filmography so well-presented and restored, in a package as stout as the man himself, that it physically confronts you with his actual work.

And the films endure and amaze. (Or at the absolute very least entertain — I’ll watch ‘Topaz’ over ‘Salt’ any day of the week.) I can never say I have a favorite Hitchcock; to me, he has moods, either the champagne sparkle of ‘North by Northwest’ or ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ or ‘Marnie’ or ‘The Trouble with Harry’ (all in this set) or the blood-red visceral thrills of ‘Vertigo,’ ‘Psycho’ or ‘The Birds.’ And through his career, Hitchcock didn’t so much alternate these sides as artfully mingle them. ‘The Birds,’ after all, plays like a ’60s Hudson-Day rom-com at the outset… until nature goes mad and tries to kill every human in sight with wicked-sharp beaks and cruel talons. And no other director has gotten that perfect mix of play and peril, the merely devilish and the truly diabolical, like Hitchcock.

These films are restored and presented superbly — in fact, this is “fixed” re-release of this set after an earlier attempt at this curated selection had regrettable alterations both historians and customers found too much to bear — and the desire to actually release this right speaks to the love behind the project at Universal. For me, the real pleasure of this disc wasn’t revisiting greatest-hit personal favorites, but rather in my first viewing of films I’d never sought out to see because of idleness and concerns about presentation — Saboteur, from 1942 (and the first film in the chronology here), turns out to be a visually striking cracking thriller with amazing shots and nail-biting tension thanks to its wartime setting. Meanwhile, I also now know what it was my mom loved about the grave-hopping dry comedy of  ’The Trouble with Harry.’

The set also gives you a great look at how intertwined Hitchcock was with the pop culture of the 20th century. The first film in this set has a screenwriting credit to Dorothy Parker; the last, ‘Family Plot,’ stars Bruce Dern. And every film in it is his. I know Hitchcock’s not perfect — some of the process shots in ‘The Birds,’ for but one example, might as well have subtitling reading THE DIRECTOR DISLIKED GOING OUTSIDE flashing in red. But again and again, his tone — and his mastery of it — come through. If Hitchcock only loved grisly murder, he’d have been a fiend; if he only loved banter, he’d be a featherweight. That combination — elegance and suspense, humor and horror, champagne and blood, however you define it — is what made Hitchcock who he was, and nobody found the idea that would make him wealthy and powerful more amusing than he did. With two biopics (‘The Girl,’ ‘Hitchcock’) either released or on standby, Hitchcock has plenty of people speaking for him right about now; it’s a good job these films speak for themselves. Hitchcock may have been famous for saying “Good Evening,” but this set’s films remind you that  long before that genial invitation, he’d already — successfully — beckoned American moviegoers quite far along into the deeper shades of night.

‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection’ is available on Blu-ray.

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