The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection [Blu-ray]

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After the spectacular work done by the studio on their gorgeous Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection boxset released (and reviewed here) just a few weeks ago, expectations were similarly sky-high for this major release of 14 Alfred Hitchcock films in high definition. But instead of a slam-dunk success, it seems as though this set is in line for the title of ‘most controversial Blu-ray release of 2012.’

Worries set in after the release date was pushed back five weeks when problems were found by early reviews (with Sight and Sound’s previewer one of the first to ring alarm bells at enthusiasm.org.) The set finally reached stores in the UK on Monday, and the first slew of online reviews has been mixed to say the least.

I happened to be walking through a major London entertainment outlet (insert your own three letter acronym guess) on Monday, and noticed that in the Blu-ray section they were showing Rope on one of their big screens. I ambled over, and my jaw dropped: it was utterly dreadful. The colour was mis-keyed with everything looking pink, the picture blown out in the highlights, and the whole thing lacking detail and displaying massive artefacting issues. Could this really be the Blu-ray? When I got home I found my 2005 DVD of the title and confirmed that even this dated standard resolution copy was vastly superior to what I had just seen.

What was going on? Desperate to find out and see one way or another for myself, I was able to beg, borrow and temporarily steal a copy of the Rope Blu-ray from a friend – and also got a very quick look at a couple of the other discs from the set flagged by reviews as problematic.

Rope (1948)

Whatever that London store had on screen on Monday, it was most emphatically not the Blu-ray (unless something was very wrong indeed with their AV equipment that day.) To my relief, it was clear within seconds of starting the borrowed disc that it is vastly superior to what I had seen in store the other day. The picture is actually extremely good – comfortably exceeding the “three stars” or “average” rating I’ve seen in online reviews. It’s beautifully detailed, with a lovely colour palette entirely faithful to the look and feel of the 1940s (trivia point: this was Hitch’s first colour film) and with a subtlety in the more delicate shades that allows objects and faces to be quite beautifully shaped and modelled. There’s plenty of grain, but it’s not obtrusive or distracting and simply feels authentic to the film stock. By comparison, the old DVD is visually flat, overlit and bland as well as lacking in detail.

However, there are a couple of problems with the picture quality that drag it back down. One is that despite having been impressively cleaned up for the most part, there’s a surprisingly high amount of white speckles and scratches left in the shadow areas that you would have thought would have been a simple and straightforward matter to clean up. It’s hard to believe that they didn’t notice it; did they just think that it didn’t matter and was a minor issue, or did they just run out of time and money to carry on and decided that this was “good enough?”

Less minor and more pervasive is a problem with colour alignment. That’s a typical issue with doing high resolution transfers of Technicolor films of this age: the process utilised back then used three differently coloured strips of film which when lined up and projected formed the full-colour image on the screen. Unfortunately the film strips have stretched and distorted in different ways over the years, making any further precise alignment impossible. Startling successes have been achieved for top titles like MGM’s The Wizard of Oz but I suspect that it’s been a very costly process of literally aligning the three colour elements by hand frame-by-frame. That’s possible with a massive title like Oz, but understandably more difficult to justify with a mid-catalogue film that even among Hitchcock purists is regarded as something of a minor entry into the Master’s oeuvre, so instead Rope has had to make do with the ‘best overall guess’. The result is prominent magenta fringing and red shadows, even bright green edge enhancement at points as the alignment slips out. That’s not been such a problem on older copies of the film, suggesting the issue is either exacerbated by the higher resolution, or else the original film strips have distorted even more since the time when the standard definition masters were struck.

To be honest, I can understand the compromise the studio has gone for on the colour alignment and it’s not really too off-putting. But less forgiveable is a glitch in the sound early in the film, which means that the soundtrack dips out while a character is visibly speaking on screen during the first scene (c.3:24s); shortly after, the sound level briefly dips down and becomes inaudible during another line of dialogue (c.3:56s). It’s baffling as to why such an evident quality control issue wasn’t picked up early in the production process; and all the more galling considering that the soundtrack has otherwise been impressively restored compared to the 2005 DVD edition which was full of hiss and crackles, all of which have been successfully excised here. It’s as though someone ran the noise filter through and accidentally caught these two incidences of true sound in the process – and never noticed. It’s an unexpected carelessness in a transfer of this significance and a boxset of this expense.

About the film: for those not familiar with Rope, a brief note and mini-review. It’s one of Hitchcock’s ‘Marmite’ films in that while many people such as myself absolutely love it, it’s certainly not for everyone. Adapted from a play and shot on a single soundstage in unbroken ten-minute takes that required the massive 1940s-era camera to be trundled around while stagehands dismantled parts of the set as it went to make room, it’s stagey and static. Depriving himself of the usual quick editing techniques for reaction shots and close-ups, and further hampered by the uptight morality regulations of the day requiring the excision of the (homo)sexual undercurrents of the source material, there’s no question that the film comes across as uptight and constrained. Personally I find that adds to the compelling claustrophobia and tension of the piece.

The story is about two privileged Harvard undergraduates who murder a third just for the thrill of it, and then hold a dinner party for the victim’s friends and family while the corpse is still concealed in the room. John Dall is terrific as the sociopathic Brandon and Farley Granger is also very effective as the neurotic Philip; Cedric Hardwicke is a welcome beacon of good old fashioned upstanding values, Constance Collier a delight as a slightly eccentric aunt, and Joan Chandler quite lovely as the victim’s fiancée Janet. But it’s late arrival James Stewart who comes to grip the film as it slowly dawns on him what Brandon and Philip have done – and what his own part is in the crime.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Not many people seem to like this film – the one example of Hitchcock ‘remaking himself’ with a cover version of one of his own films from 1934. But it happens to be a big favourite of mine, and I was anxious to hear about problems with the colour on this new transfer. The online reviews said this was particularly bad around the one hour mark, so in my brief ten minutes with the disc I quickly moved to that chapter to what the problem was.

The reviews did not lie: there is a very obvious and rather distracting ‘pulsing’ of the film’s colour palette visible on single shots which make the streets go from a blue-neutral to a yellow-caste and back again at a rate of about a second or so. Once you see it, it’s hard to put aside. Apparently much of the film has this problem, although I only had a chance to look at a couple more chapter points further on and I confess that I didn’t find anything nearly as noticeable as the original hour mark.

I went back to the 2005 DVD copy of this, and there’s no evidence of the ‘pulsing’ problem so it’s something that’s been introduced by the latest high resolution scan of the negative. (As an aside, the contemporary DVD of Rope actually does show signs of this pulsing issue during its own opening credits, even though the sequence is conversely more stable on the Blu-ray.) Perhaps that means it’s a problem with the negative that they used this time, and can’t be easily addressed, although you’d have thought that modern digital computer restoration would be able to stabilise the colouration at least within a single shot better than we see here. Again it just seems that the project ran out of time or inclination, decided “Oh, that’s close enough” and called it quits.

But at the same time, digging out the 2005 DVD version proved a revelation on a different front: because that copy of the film is dismal compared with the Blu-ray, for all its ‘pulsing’ issues. The DVD transfer has a really rather unpleasant muddy/green look to it with heavy-handed colour turning faces into beetroot (and Doris Day is given an impressive five o’clock shadow for much of the film!), is soft and blurry, and has an unexpectedly large amount of serious print damage. The Blu-ray has a much better colour balance to it and there’s been a lot of effort to dig out some of those over-saturated colours – to the point where some reviewers have complained of the colour now being wishy-washy in parts. Detail is hugely superior: a London street sign in the background at the hour-mark is illegible on the DVD but clear as day on the Blu-ray. And print damage is much reduced, although like Rope some obvious dirt and scratches does remain and it seems that the producers got the point where they decided “Oh, that’s good enough,” and threw up their hands so they could move on to the next film.

This “Oh, that’s good/close enough” attitude – which is becoming a prevailing impression given by this boxset – is really unfortunate. There’s a lot of excellent work that’s gone into The Man Who Knew Too Much and much to admire, and yet all the purists are going to see and gripe about is the pulsating colour issue that does, unfortunately, really affect the viewing experience. All that commendable restoration work undone by a careless shot in one’s own foot, much as Rope is blighted by that entirely avoidable sound glitch.

Family Plot (1976)

I only got a few minutes looking at this film, the last made by Hitchcock and one that I confess I’ve never actually watched in full. But in terms of Blu-ray quality, I’m afraid it seems that the wheels well and truly fall off at this point.

It’s as though the production team were given the assignment to create a Blu-ray version of the 2005 DVD set of Hitchcock films, and so were obliged to include the same 14 films in it: only to find, then they reached Family Plot, that not only had the project budget completely run out, but that no one had thought to check whether a high definition master of the last film had even been struck in the first place. Because close-up inspection of the low-light scenes from this film strongly suggest that this has been crudely upscaled from a standard resolution master in the most basic and careless fashion possible.

It’s watchable if you sit far enough back, and the daylight scenes in the Californian sunshine do actually look really rather nice, but even so it’s of an overall quality that you would even be a little nonplussed about as a cheap DVD let alone as part of a much-trumpeted and pricey high-definition boxset. I can only assume that the production team felt that no one was going to bother watching this film anyway (and to be honest, that’s not an unreasonable assumption – it’s not a gem, although it does have some light hearted 70s fun and is a decent made-for-TV effort) and that therefore it didn’t matter but simply had to be present in the set in some form or other to meet the project brief.

“Oh, that’s close enough,” comes the implied refrain once again. Well – no it isn’t, actually, certainly not in this case.

Conclusions

Before wrapping things up, a caveat: the above films were the ones I’d heard there were issues with and wanted to see for myself. I only saw Rope in its entirety and had to settle for the ‘problem blackspots’ on the other two. That means the above comments are necessarily weighted to the negative/problem parts of the Masterpiece boxset. The fact that there are so many criticisms should therefore not in all fairness be taken as representative of the collection as a whole.

I can only assume that the lion’s share of the project’s time, budget and attention went into the restoration of the most famous two films in the set, Vertigo and Rear Window – which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to have even a passing look at. Online reviews also speak very highly of the quality of the Saboteur (1942) and The Trouble With Harry (1955) transfers, and the copy of Psycho (1960) contained here is the same as the one released in 2010 to wide praise. (Note: the US version of The Masterpiece Collection also contains North by Northwest but that’s not included in the UK boxset. It is, however, already available as a stand-alone title – and is outstandingly good and highly recommended.)

Judging from the consensus of online reviews, it seems that The Birds (1963) is reasonable but hampered from full restoration because of the original optical processes used to achieve its then-groundbreaking visual effects; Shadow of a Doubt (1943) suffers from print damage and a soft transfer; and Marnie (1964) has a high degree of grain that has put many off (although using Digital Noise Reduction to artificially reduce the grain would likely have produced even more outcry.) Of the remaining films – Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Frenzy (1972) – the reviews are variable but seem to generally agree these are solid, acceptable if not stellar presentations of some of Hitchcock’s later, lesser works.

All in all, it’s disappointing to see that Universal haven’t matched their own high standards as set in the Universal Monsters Blu-ray collection with this latest release for arguably one of the most important directors in the history of cinema. The lack of any new extras other than those ported over in standard definition from the original 2005 collection is disappointing; even the packaging of the set has not gone uncriticised, with many disliking the cardboard sleeves from which the discs have to be extracted and reporting problems with scratches as a result.

It’s difficult, then, to recommend this expensive set (it’s retailing for about £100 in the UK, and there’s a more expensive collector’s limited edition as well) even for Hitchcock loyalists – which I certainly number myself among. And yet at the same time, for all its imperfections when analysed in isolation, it’s still a marked step forward from previous versions of the films on disc. Given that we’re unlikely to see any further improvements done in the short- to medium-term, if you do want the likes of Vertigo and Rear Window in high definition on your shelf then it’s one that you might just have to bite the bullet and make the plunge for, warts and all.

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