video review by
Gary Johnson

Alfred Hitchcock

[click on photos
for larger versions]

Have you ever wondered if there were really any visible differences between digitally mastered videos and regular videos? Well, I did and when Anchor Bay released a set of four new digitally mastered Alfred Hitchcock videos--Notorious, Rebecca, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case--I decided to compare the old videos with the new ones.

The differences, while maybe not surprising, were certainly substantial. In both cases, the new Anchor Bay digitally mastered releases contained much more detail. The old CBS/Fox releases looked burned out in comparison--as if they had been mastered from well-worn source material. Bright areas tended to bleed into surrounding areas and obliterate detail, making the lush cinematography look blurry.

While the digitally mastered videos can't compare with DVD or laserdisc versions, they nonetheless provide enough of a difference to render the CBS/Fox VHS releases completely obsolete. Want evidence? Check out the following screen captures from Rebecca and Notorious:

Rebecca               Notorious

About the movies themselves

Rebecca is less Hitchcock's movie than it is producer David O. Selznick's. Hitchcock himself said, "It's not a Hitchcock picture." After Selznick's success with Gone With the Wind, he insisted that his movie adaptations closely follow their novels. Therefore, Rebecca lacks the cinematic flourishes we have come to expect from Hitchcock; however, it's still a strong, atmospheric mystery, and it has aged rather well. While it might not represent pure Hitchcock, it nonetheless weaves an entrancing tale of deception and love. Based upon Daphne du Maurier's classic novel, Rebecca stars Joan Fontaine as the wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). His previous wife, Rebecca, recently died in a boating accident, and her presence casts a ghostly presence over the story. The de Winter estate, named Manderly, is filled with reminders of Rebecca, such as the elegant portrait that looks down on the living room. And Manderly is filled with shadowy corners where her ghost might easily prowl. But the most dangerous presence is the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who idolized Rebecca and deeply resents the presence of a new Mrs. de Winter. In one of the best performances of her career, Fontaine gives us a Mrs. de Winter who feels completely out of her element within the intimidating architecture of Manderly. She walks with her shoulders stooped, in a constant sign of submission. Soon she begins to suspect that her life is in danger. Meanwhile, Olivier's Maxim is somewhat reminiscent of his dark, brooding performance as Heathcliff from the previous year's Wuthering Heights. Maxim needs Fontaine, but he doesn't know how to reconcile his love for her with his deep guilt over Rebecca's death. George Barnes won an Oscar for his cinematography and producer Selznick took home the Best Picture award.

Many critics point to Notorious as their favorite Hitchcock movie. Francois Truffaut said "Notorious is the very quintessence of Hitchcock." However, for viewers more familiar with Hitchcock's '50s and '60s output (as represented by Rear Window, Psycho, and North by Northwest), Notorious will be a surprise. It lacks the humor that became such a distinctive mark of Hitchcock's later work. In place of humor, Hitchcock provides one of the most passionate love stories of his career. Ingrid Bergman stars as an American citizen whose Nazi father has been convicted of treason. Because she loves America, federal agent Cary Grant recruits her to infiltrate a group of Nazis in South America. In the process, Bergman and Grant fall deeply in love. Their love is one of the strongest ever captured on celluloid. In one scene, as he tries to leave her hotel room, they share a non-stop series of kisses that lasts nearly three minutes. Much to Grant's disappointment, her assignment forces her to cozy up to Claude Rains. She waits for Grant to complain about the assignment, and he waits for her complain. But they're too proud to complain--even if that means she ultimately must marry Rains. Along the way, Bergman provides key information about Rains and his Nazi cohorts. In one of the movie's best scenes, Bergman helps Grant sneak into the wine cellar, where he discovers uranium in wine bottles. When Rains wises up to the deception, he imprisons Bergman in their house and slowly begins to poison her to death. Unlike most Hitchcock movies, the suspense doesn't come from action. It comes from the threat posed by the Nazis. Grant and Bergman must carefully tiptoe at the edges of the scenes, in constant fear of discovery. But the movie's palpable sense of tension comes from the relationship between Grant and Bergman. She resents his silence while her assignment places her in Rains' bed. She feels used by Grant and suspects that his love for her was just a ruse to help solicit her assistance in uncovering the Nazis. Unlike the other movies in this collection, Notorious was not produced by David O. Selznick. It was produced by Hitchcock himself and distributed by RKO.

Spellbound hasn't aged well. Hitchcock described it as "just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis," and it's the "pseudo-psychoanalysis" that makes this picture so laborious. Back in the '40s, Hollywood had great faith in Freudian psychology and created several movies (such as The Dark Mirror and Possessed) where psychology was used to explain away character motivations in painfully obvious terms. In Spellbound, psychiatrist Dr. Edwards (Gregory Peck) becomes catatonic when he sees vertical lines--such as those created by a fork on a dinner plate or by the lines on a bathrobe. What causes this condition? And why is he suffering from amnesia? Dr. Edwards is the new head of psychiatry at the Green Manors Mental Asylum. But doubts about his credentials and identity soon begin to surface, as when he panics during an operation and must be escorted out of the operating room. Is he an impostor? And if he is, who is he? In spite of her usually cool demeanor, Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) becomes attracted to Edwards. She soon realizes that he is an impostor and she tries to help him discover his real self--and the whereabouts of the real Dr. Edwards. Spellbound features a famous dream sequence designed by Salvatore Dali that includes some astonishing images, including huge floating eyes, twisted landscapes, and a faceless man in a tuxedo.

The Paradine Case
The Paradine Case is one of Hitchcock's weakest movies. Gregory Peck is horribly miscast in the lead role as a British lawyer named Anthony Keane who falls in love with his glamorous client (played by Alida Valli). At home, Keane has a beautiful, devoted wife (played by Ann Todd) and their lives together seem envious, but the presence of Valli and her iceberg beauty entices Peck. He falls deeply in love with her and becomes convinced of her innocence. Hitchcock would have preferred Laurence Olivier or Ronald Coleman in the lead role. But Peck was forced upon him by producer Selznick. The screenplay (by Selznick himself) lets the characters talk and talk and talk and talk. Divorced of his usual cinematic tricks by the static courtroom drama, Hitchcock struggled to inject life into the story. Occasional camera flourishes--such as the high shot that shows Peck leaving the courtroom after he gives up his client's defense--liven the proceedings, but for the most part, The Paradine Case is tedious viewing. Recommended only for the staunchest of Hitchcock fanatics.


Notorious, Rebecca, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case are now available from Anchor Bay Entertainment. All the videos are newly restored from the original negatives and digitally mastered. Suggested retail price: $14.98 each.


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