When it came time to decide my annual White City Cinema Filmmaker of the Year honor, there was no real contest: 2012, for many reasons, belonged to Alfred Hitchcock. For the past calendar year, it seems like Hitch was everywhere. Vertigo, to much fanfare, supplanted Citizen Kane atop the BFI/Sight & Sound Critics’ Poll of the greatest movies of all time (a usurping that I’m totally fine with). The BFI also restored Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films, all of which have been exhibited theatrically and should eventually make their way to home video. Beginning last month, the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation began streaming free of charge the recently re-discovered 1924 film The White Shadow, which Hitchcock wrote, assistant directed, edited and designed the sets for. This British melodrama, directed by Graham Cutts, turned out to be a major revelation for being an important stepping stone for Hitch on his path to becoming a director himself. Hitchcock also turned up in dubious-looking biopics on the big screen (the Anthony Hopkins-in-a-fat-suit-starring Hitchcock) as well as the small (HBO’s The Girl, which told the disturbing and long suppressed story of Hitchcock’s sexual harassment of Tippi Hedren on the set of Marnie). Most importantly, though, a ridiculous number of the master’s films dropped on Blu-ray for the first time, 24 to be exact, most of them in terrific editions that illustrate how it is ultimately the great movies that make him matter now more than ever.
The complete list of Hitchcock titles newly released on Blu in the last 12 months:
The Lodger (1927) – Network
The 39 Steps (1935) – Criterion
Rebecca (1940) – MGM
Saboteur (1942) – Universal
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Universal
Aventure Malgache (1944) – Eureka/Masters of Cinema
Bon Voyage (1944) – Eureka/Mastres of Cinema
Lifeboat (1944) – Eureka/Masters of Cinema
Spellbound (1945) – MGM
Notorious (1946) – MGM
Rope (1948) – Universal
Strangers on a Train (1953) – Warner Bros.
Dial M for Murder (1954) – Warner Bros.
Rear Window (1954) – Universal
To Catch a Thief (1955) – Paramount
The Trouble with Harry (1955) – Universal
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – Universal
Vertigo (1958) – Universal
The Birds (1963) – Universal
Marnie (1965) – Universal
Torn Curtain (1966) – Universal
Topaz (1969) – Universal
Frenzy (1972) – Universal
Family Plot (1976) – Universal
The 13 Universal titles cited above are part of the “Masterpiece Collection,” a mammoth limited edition 15 disc box set that also includes North By Northwest and Psycho (both of which had previously been issued as stand-alone discs prior to 2012). This mother-of-all movie box sets is arguably the most important ever created. Originally scheduled for release in September, it was delayed for a month by technical problems, most of which were satisfactorily resolved by last minute fixes. Needless to say, I eagerly snapped this one up along with The Lodger, The 39 Steps, Notorious (the latter of which I reviewed earlier this year) and Strangers on a Train. Questions arise though. Is this Hitch motherlode too much of a good thing? Can anyone other than Martin Scorsese afford to buy all 24 of these titles? Even if you think the answers to these questions are yes and no, respectively, the difficulty in acquiring such an embarrassment of riches should probably be considered a nice problem for any cinephile to have. Out of the titles that I did purchase, from The Lodger through Family Plot, I was reminded yet again why Hitchcock is so beloved and so important. Not only was he a master director who made entertaining thrillers that showed a profound understanding of the dark side of human nature, his body of work was also remarkably consistent for half a century, a longer span of time than almost anyone else (only John Ford and Luis Bunuel can really compare).
Although the “Masterpiece Collection” will be topping my soon-to-be published list of the Best Home Video Releases of 2012, I would like to dedicate the rest of this post to the sublime but much less heralded release of The Lodger, the first – and so far the only – BFI restoration of the Hitchcock silents to receive a home video release. The Lodger was released in September from the UK label Network as a superb but, unfortunately for those not in possession of a multi-region Blu-ray player, region-B (i.e., European) “locked” disc. The Lodger is not only the oldest of the 24 Hitchcock films to make a Blu-ray debut in 2012 but, perhaps surprisingly, arguably the best in terms of the audio/visual quality. Originally released in 1925, The Lodger was Hitchcock’s third feature film as a director and the first to be shot in his native England (the first two were made in Germany). Loosely based on the story of Jack the Ripper and subtitled “A Story of the London Fog,” it was also Hitchcock’s first foray into the thriller genre, which has caused many critics – not to mention the director himself – to refer to it as the first “true” Hitchcock movie. I had seen the film once before, on VHS tape in the 1990s, and thought of it as an interesting formative work because of how it showed Hitchcock’s famous obsessions in embryonic form. But watching the Blu-ray caused an epiphany: The Lodger is a truly great film in its own right, regardless of what its creator went on to do afterwards.
The Lodger intertwines two of what would soon become Hitchcock’s trademark plots: the story of a murderer, and a “wrong man” plot (in which an ordinary man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit). The Lodger is also, unforgettably, a love story. Daisy, the daughter of a married couple who run a boarding house, falls in love with the eponymous but unnamed title character (played by the great Ivor Novello), who is also the chief suspect in a series of grisly stranglings. The Lodger clearly influenced Fritz Lang’s M, not only in its depiction of how murder can drive a community into a collective, lynch mob-like mentality but also in terms of its visual style; most obviously, Hitchcock employs the triangle as a visual motif throughout the film in much the same way Lang would employ the spiral in M. More significantly, I never realized the extent of how gorgeously and expressionistically lit The Lodger was until I viewed Network’s Blu-ray, which contains a high-definition transfer of film elements restored by the BFI National Archive. It is almost hard to believe that the film was shot in 1925 on the evidence of this uncommonly strong transfer; detail in some of the close-ups, as in the first memorable kiss between Daisy and the lodger, is stunning. The images, which have been restored to their original blue and sepia color-tinting, not only contain great clarity but are also remarkably stable and free of scratches and blemishes. This restoration makes the prospect of seeing the other restored Hitchcock silents, especially the much-celebrated Blackmail, a positively mouth-watering one.
Like most silent films, The Lodger had no official score. The soundtrack for the Blu-ray was newly written by British composer Nitin Sawhney. It is a full-blown orchestral score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra that sounds very robust in 2-channel stereo. In fact, it is one of the best scores I’ve ever heard for a silent movie – right up there alongside Richard Einhorn’s score for The Passion of Joan of Arc. At times, Sawhney’s score seems to fittingly tip its hat to the classic Bernard Herrmann scores for North By Northwest and Psycho. Unfortunately, the score has also generated some controversy among so-called “purists” who have complained in online forums about the inclusion of a couple of pop songs with vocals. The first song, which begins at around the film’s 23 minute mark, is a beautiful, Indian-inflected pop number, a reflection of the composer’s cultural heritage, with lyrics that cleverly interact with the images onscreen (e.g., “Blue eyes cold as ice / cut through me like a knife”). I would argue, however, that this song is completely appropriate because it accompanies a major tonal shift in the movie – away from suspense and towards romance as Daisy and the mysterious lodger first develop feelings for each other. The second song accompanies the ballroom dance scene, which practically cries out for such a song. The first song, titled “Daisy’s Song,” is actually my favorite part of the entire score and I’m very happy that Network included the double CD soundtrack in their Blu-ray package.
While I personally think Network’s Blu-ray of The Lodger single-handedly justifies the purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, I’m also aware that only a very small fraction of American cinephiles are likely to take that plunge. Therefore, one can only hope that an enterprising U.S. distributor, perhaps Criterion, will pick up the stateside rights to The Lodger, perhaps alongside of the other BFI restorations, and release them as a Blu-ray box set. Maybe that is what 2013 will bring since the the flood of high-def Hitch shows no signs of abating (Criterion has already announced a January Blu-ray release of the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). Or you could just come over to my apartment if you really want to see it now. Just make sure to bring a six-pack.
Check out the trailer for the BFI restoration of The Lodger here:
Listen to Nitin Sawhney’s “Daisy’s Song” here: