By Chaz Lipp
Surely on the wish list of many classic cinema buffs this holiday season is Universal’s 15-disc behemoth Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection. This Blu-ray set presents 15 Hitchcock films, 13 of which are in high definition for the very first time. Let’s hope it’s not the last time, as most of the transfers leave something to be desired. Before you (or someone you care about) plops down anywhere near the $299.98 retail prices for this box set, please consider the rampant quality control issues that unfortunately plague it.
Of the remaining ten titles, favorite will of course vary from person to person. I’m partial to the real-time tension of Rope (1948), with its thought-provoking screenplay and effective performances by leads John Dall, Farley Granger, and James Stewart. This is the earliest color film here and the transfer is disappointingly soft. The black-and-white of the two earliest films, Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), looks outstanding. Both films are interesting and often overlooked in the Hitchcock filmography, with Shadow being a particularly subtle drama. Marnie (1964), starring Sean Connery, was for years considered one of Hitch’s weakest films, but the character study has rightly undergone a serious reevaluation in recent years. Sadly, it wasn’t treated to a very careful transfer and the excessively heavy grain creates one eyesore of a Blu-ray. Frenzy(1972), a uniquely “modern”-feeling thriller, sits somewhat uncomfortably at the other end of the grain spectrum. This one appears to have been buffed smooth with a little too much DNR (digital noise reduction).
Of the more minor Hitchcock titles, the mixed bag-visuals continue in earnest. The Trouble with Harry (1955) is one of the finest transfers in the set and one of the few I would use the word “gorgeous” to describe. This light comedic excursion (with a fun debut performance by the great Shirley MacLaine) boasts breathtaking detail and brilliance of color. Torn Curtain(1966) – notable primarily for its star turn by Paul Newman – and the overlong Topaz (1969) have drab visual presentations that don’t improve significantly on their standard DVD counterparts. But they look practically like Criterion Collection-level restorations when compared to the disastrous The Man Who Knew Too Much(1956) and Family Plot (1976). The former is a remake of the much better-regarded 1934 film of the same name (can’t wait for the Criterion release of that in Jan. ’13) and it looks pretty miserable. The print flaws – white and black specs, scratches, and other artifacts – that affect most of these films are epidemic on Too Much. Plot is Hitchcock’s final film and rarely, if ever, considered essential. But that’s no excuse for the grainy, near-pixilated at times, muddy, dark mess of a transfer that Universal has unceremoniously granted it.
The audio is, thankfully, far more consistent. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix on Northwest is, like its transfer, impeccable (kudos to Warner for their handling of this film). Both Psycho and Vertigo have very effective 5.1 DTS-HD MA mixes. All the rest have 2.0 DTS-HD mono tracks that boast clear dialogue with well-balanced music and effects. For the most part, these tracks are free of hiss, pops, or distortion. Rope stands out as having some minor issues with inconsistent volume levels, but nothing too distracting.
If there wasn’t already enough to caution consumers, know that the packaging is a nightmare for anyone who doesn’t like touching a disc’s surface and sliding them in and out of cardboard sleeves. Inside the main box is a “book” made up of pockets that house the discs. While not excessively tight-fitting, pulling the discs out (and then replacing them) necessitates touching the playing surface and will inevitably lead to fine scratches as well. As evidenced by other releases, there are ways around this while still making a multi-disc set compact and more lightweight than including 15 standard Blu-ray keepcases. For the price Universal is asking, these alternatives should have been explored in order to make a more durable package that wouldn’t be harsh on the disc themselves.