Armchair Cinephile 

Hitchcock's far side

Every movie lover thinks he knows Alfred Hitchcock, but ask most fans to list his films, and you'll get only the tip of a blood-soaked iceberg: Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and a couple others. A minority will know the work he did in England; a slightly larger group will have seen more than two of these eight treasures just released by Warner Brothers. Casual fans have a field day ahead of them, because this collection of under-exposed Hitchcock is as full of wit and nerve as his biggest hits.

It also boasts some real anomalies in the master's filmography. Most surprising is his only pure comedy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith; starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a couple who learn that their marriage isn't technically legal, it's a model of the screwball genre that boasts more laughs than some of its better-known peers.

The Wrong Man, the director's first story, drawn entirely from real life, is also the most heartfelt work in the filmmaker's canon: Henry Fonda has been accused of a crime he didn't commit, and instead of milking the scenario for suspense, Hitchcock tells his story with surprising realism and tenderness. (Fonda's uncomplicated earnestness helps.)

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A third curiosity, Dial M for Murder, can't really be appreciated on a TV. It was Hitchcock's sole excursion into 3-D, and is naturally presented in 2-D here; it's up to Mom & Pop theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse (which recently screened Dial M in Austin) to give cinephiles a chance to see the original version.

A couple of the stories included in Warner Brothers' collection have lost some of their weight over the years. Although it features a memorable performance by Montgomery Clift, the plot of I Confess is driven by a scandal that is laughably prudish now. In the DVD's documentary, we learn that the book which inspired the movie harbored a more sensational secret.

In fact, these 15- to 30-minute documentries (each disc has one) reveal that many of the plotting decisions that contemporary viewers may see as flaws displeased Hitchcock himself - instances where morally conservative contemporary sensibilities forced him to water down his stories. In one of these films, for example, a character who is clearly a murderer turns out to be innocent; the revelation happens in the last scene, and betrays every second of the actor's fine performance up until then. It cheapens the whole film, in fact, and you can feel the director squirm as he goes along with his studio's wishes.

In other instances, it's remarkable what Hitchcock and his actors can slip under the censors' radar. In Strangers on a Train, a brilliant performance by Robert Walker conveys all sorts of perversity without being too overt. The dandyish Walker forms an obsessive bond with good guy Farley Granger, killing Granger's estranged wife and expecting him to return the favor. Walker's chummy menace is highly sexualized but never made explicit; a moment of contact between the characters' feet is as blatant as it gets.

Strangers comes in a two-disc edition containing two cuts of the film. Some cinephiles feel that the earlier edit amplifies Walker's attraction to Granger, but both versions convey it. The main difference between the two is that the first cut is missing the final version's beautifully witty closing scene. Strangers also boasts this collection's only audio commentary track, which contains a couple of brief snippets of old interviews with Hitch; it's a shame that the director's voice isn't more present in this collection's bonus features.

Two minor films here feature big-name stars - Cary Grant in Suspicion and Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright - but only come alive when supporting actors - Nigel Bruce and Alistair Sim, respectively - pop onto the scene. The earliest in the bunch, Foreign Correspondent, is thrilling and in some ways closest to Hitchcock's later work: It produces much of its tension through set pieces (those iconic combinations of action and setting, like the Mount Rushmore sequence in North By Northwest); it is set in motion by cloak-and-dagger stuff that winds up being ancillary; and it wraps its action up in unlikely romance.

Looking back, it's almost unbelievable that Americans ever needed French film critics to explain to them what an artist Alfred Hitchcock was. Maybe audiences at the time were so distracted by the visceral kicks these movies provided that they didn't stop to ponder the skill that went into crafting them. More likely, Americans have a hard time believing serious art can be this much fun. •

John DeFore on DVD

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