If left to its own devices, Universal’s massive, totemic Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection would be a landmark in the world of HD goodness; it offers newly restored and scrubbed versions of every film the great director made for Universal Studios (as well as Warner Bros’ North by Northwest, oddly enough).  That’s thirty-plus years of film history, my friends, spanning from 1942’s Saboteur to 1976’s Family Plot (Hitch’s last and – sadly – his least inspired picture), yet it isn’t the most compelling reason to delve into these classics.

No, what I find most valuable is the parade of perversion that Hitch showcases, perversion hid behind movie-star veneers and studio-slick camerawork.

Take but a cursory viewing of any of the fifteen titles included, and you might question this claim, but look closer: there’s depravity ahead.  Here, then, are the ten most gloriously perverse moments from Alfred Hitchcock’s Universal career (and North by Northwest).

  • Joseph Cotten at dinner in Shadow of a Doubt.  Hitch claimed that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite of all his pictures, and it isn’t hard to see why: a can’t-miss thriller premise (a young girl finds out her beloved uncle is a serial killer), a sharp script from Our Town‘s Thornton Wilder, and a brilliant lead performance from Joseph Cotten.  Cotten’s Uncle Charlie seems the exemplar of 1940s masculinity until you ask him about women, and then the veneer cracks.  In the best scene of this great movie, he coldly outlines his disgust for the fairer sex, and Hitch has him look right at the camera to deliver the punchline.
  • Murder as an intellectual endeavor in Rope.  Nowadays, Rope is more notable for its justly heralded technical gimmick than for anything else; Hitch staged the film to resemble one long, virtuoso camera take.  However, the central hook makes my stomach turn every time.  As the film opens, two college students are murdering one of their peers, and it isn’t a crime of anger or jealous or sexual distrust.  They murder the poor sap because they can, and then they hide the body in a trunk that becomes the centerpiece of a fancy dinner party to underscore the cosmic irrelevance of his death.  It’s nihilism chic.
  • Jimmy Stewart: Secret deviant in Rear Window and Vertigo.  For my money, Hitch’s finest work came in these two collaborations with Jimmy Stewart; he got Stewart to push his beloved everyman image past its breaking point.  In Rear Window, he manages to foil a murderer, but he only gets wind of the crime because…well, because he’s a Peeping Tom, and he likes leering at his neighbors’ personal lives.  Vertigo is even sicker – Stewart meets a troubled young woman, falls in love with her, watches her die, and then spends the rest of the movie trying to get her doppelgänger to resemble his beloved in every way.  Necrophilia, thy name is George Bailey.
  • Everybody, laugh at the dead body, or The Trouble with Harry.  You got to hand it to Alfred Hitchcock; the man can’t make an out-and-out comedy without letting the macabre seep in.  The Trouble with Harry isn’t a great movie, but it still impresses with its comedic engine: the title character dies (Indignity #1), and when the rest of the cast stumbles across his corpse, the primary emotion they evince is that of mild irritation.  The trouble with Harry is that he’s a nuisance, dead or alive – you can practically hear Hitchcock cackling behind the frame.
  • Martin Landau’s ulterior motive in North by Northwest.  Ah, Martin Landau.  The Academy Award-winning actor is a national treasure nowadays, but in 1959, he was a struggling day player who used North by Northwest to propel him into stardom.  The trick?  A very controversial creative decision.  See, on the page, his character is a stereotypical henchman, menacing Cary Grant because Big Bad James Mason tells him to, but in the film?  Not so much.  Landau camps it up; his backstory is that he’s in love with Mason, and he sees Grant as a threat to their potential future together.  This was a risky choice for 1959, but it paid off, and the rest is, to coin a phrase, history.

  • Heroines?  Who needs ‘em in Psycho?  You know what I’m going to say, but it doesn’t make me any less right (Spoiler Warning for anyone living under a rock on Mars since 1960).  Killing off ostensible lead Janet Leigh in the first thirty-seven minutes of the movie completely destabilizes our moral compass.  It’s completely counter to what we expect; a) she’s the heroine, b) before she dies, she’s decided to return the money she’s stolen from her boss as a means of atoning for her sins, and c) her absence forces us to side with the absolute worst person in the world, milquetoast psychopath Norman Bates.  The kicker?  We’re so shocked, it takes us way longer than it should to realize Norman is completely out of his mind.
  • Nature strikes and Mommy lusts in The Birds.  The overt horror in The Birds is, of course, the birds.  They shriek and swoop and tear and attack and aggressively reveal the level of Hitchcock’s obsession with leading lady Tippi Hedren, but they aren’t the only villains.  Exhibit A: Jessica Tandy’s stern, terrifying Lydia Brenner.  From the moment she eyes Hedren, Tandy sees red, and we don’t know why until we watch Brenner’s fawning, too-affectionate attention towards her adult son Mitch (Rod Taylor).  With Hedren making googly eyes at Mitch, it’s no wonder Brenner gets so mad; the real question is, is she mad enough to call on the birds’ fury?
  • James Bond goes bad in Marnie.  A little context, if you’ll permit me.  In 1964, Sean Connery was the Ideal Man.  He’d already made Dr. No and From Russia with Love, and to the world, he was James Bond: tough, sexual, wry. With Marnie, Hitchcock subverted that persona in much the same way that he used Rear Window and Vertigo to demystify Jimmy Stewart.  Connery’s Mark Rutland is, on the surface, a stand-up guy; when he catches pathological liar and thief Marnie Edgar trying to steal his stuff, he doesn’t turn her in, resolving instead to cure her of her wicked ways.  Yet Connery is so brusque and awful, you wonder how his methods will do Marnie any good – he seems to be getting off on mistreating her.  Marnie is a flawed movie, but the interplay between Connery and Hedren is more than worth the price of admission.
  • Hey, let’s watch Butch Cassidy brutally murder a guy in Torn Curtain!  Torn Curtain is the worst movie on this list, but it has one of the best setpieces Hitchcock has ever directed.  The scene: American spy Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) confronts the Soviet security agent who’s been trailing him.  The problem: if he makes it back to his superiors, Said Agent with blow Armstrong’s cover.  The solution: Armstrong has to kill him.  Easier said than done.  Newman tries to strangle him.  It doesn’t work.  He tries to break his neck.  It doesn’t work.  He tries to stab him.  It doesn’t work.  He beats at him with a cast-iron pan.  That fails, too.  The scene goes on, and on, and on, until we’re as exhausted as Newman is when he finally gets the security agent to submit.
  • Root for the bad guy in Frenzy.  This one still impresses me.  Despite the mistaken identity hook that drives the picture, we know early into Frenzy who the baddie is – venal rapist and sex murderer Robert Rusk (Barry Foster).  Hitch doesn’t shy from graphic details as Rusk butchers his victims, a fact that makes a key scene late in Frenzy so stunning.  Rusk has just killed one of the hero’s accomplices, and he’s basking in the afterglow until he realizes he has left an incriminating pin on the victim’s body.  Thus begins Rusk’s desperate search to retrieve the evidence, and dammed if we’re not sweating along with him every step of the way.

Universal’s fifteen-disc Blu-ray set is generally very solid: rich DTS-HD Master Audio tracks on each film, and new digital restorations of Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.  The restored titles look phenomenal (North by Northwest is especially sharp), though the picture quality for the other films is more variable.  Generally, the black-and-white movies (Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt) look great while the non-restored color films (Rope, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot) have watchable but inconsistent transfers – think really good DVD quality, and you’ll be on the right track.  It isn’t a deal-breaker; I think I notice the discrepancy because the restored prints look so great.

Supplements are incredibly comprehensive, and I’ll refer you HERE for a full breakdown of the set’s gifts.  Of the many options, the best include audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes documentaries on all features, and – best of all – archive galleries stuffed with promotional materials.

If you’re a true film aficionado, you already own this. Alfred Hitchcock is a twentieth-century master – this set proves it.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: The Exquisite Perversions of the ALFRED HITCHCOCK: MASTERPIECE COLLECTION