Name your three favorite Hitchcock movies and chances are at least one of them is included in MGM’s new “Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection.” Don’t know the suspense master’s work well enough to pick three? Then this classy box set is the right place to start, featuring new transfers of eight black-and-white gems from the two-decade span between 1927-47 (most of them previously available only via cheap bargain-bin transfers or pricey, long-out-of-print Criterion editions).
The collection begins with “The Lodger” — Hitchcock’s one must-see silent film, a German Expressionism-tinged Jack the Ripper riff that introduces his recurring theme of an innocent man falsely accused, which the director himself called “the first true Hitchcock picture” — and extends through “The Paradine Case,” a lesser trifle enriched by a commentary from Hitchcock authors Bill Krohn and Steven Rebello, who delve into the creative tug-of-war between the director and producer David O. Selznick.
Selznick is the not-quite-invisible hand felt throughout these films, as all but two (the exceptions being “The Lodger” and the 1936 British pic “Sabotage”) were produced during the period Hitchcock was under contract to the Hollywood Svengali. After all, it was Selznick who lured the director to the States in the first place, their first collaboration resulting in 1940 best picture winner “Rebecca,” a sinister gothic romance that bears both their DNA in equal measure. Though Hitchcock is the director most commonly associated with the “auteur theory,” Selznick deserves the title, too, for imposing his will on the creative process via long, detailed memos and ultimate control in the editing room.
But Hitchcock was fortunate. With Selznick enmeshed in trying to finish “Gone With the Wind,” Hitchcock learned how to escape the producer’s micro-managerial personality and protect his own vision: By this point, he’d refined his technique enough to shoot just the material he needed, which meant Selznick wouldn’t have the coverage to second-guess Hitchcock’s choices. So, while the film itself embodies the melodramatic sweep of a true Selznick project, the subversive tone (including risque hints of lesbianism) is undeniably Hitchcock’s.
A 30-minute making-of featurette recaps the rich backstory between the two on the “Rebecca” DVD (such mini-docs are standard on nearly all the discs), with Time magazine critic Richard Corliss supplying observations more directly tied to the film’s aesthetic on the commentary. Every one of the films includes an engaging feature-length discussion (two, in the case of “Notorious”) from a noted Hitchcock biographer or scholar. It’s like film school in a box for budding cinephiles.
With Hitchcock in high demand after “Rebecca,” Selznick proceeded to lend him out to other studios, an arrangement that proved an excellent investment for the producer (who charged more for the privilege than he paid Hitchcock), as well as an ideal opportunity for the director to experiment with a broader range of films that he might if exclusively directing Selznick pictures (even venturing into romantic comedy territory with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” available in a separate box set from Warner Bros.).
“Suspicion” (1941) reverses the standard Hitchcock plot of an innocent man falsely accused, positioning Cary Grant as a charming murderer who may very well be trying to poison his wife (he would push the notion further a couple years later in “Shadow of a Doubt”). “Lifeboat” (1944) permitted one of the director’s more audacious technical stunts, in which he contains an entire whodunit within a single isolated location (presaging “Rope,” which ups the ante by doing it in 10 extended takes). Hitchcock was constantly challenging himself with such arbitrary experiments, which made for great publicity at the time and, in some cases, remain the only reason such films stand out from his oeuvre today.
Far more impressive are the smaller stunts that otherwise stand on their own, such as the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence in “Spellbound” (1945) — a film that might have aged better were it not for the corny pop Freudianism that overshadows Gregory Peck’s delicate protagonist (though professors Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg make a strong case for the film’s narrative and stylistic merits in their commentary track). Similar to “The Paradine Case,” “Spellbound” feels limited by Selznick’s more melodramatic impulses — those were the last two films the pair undertook together, after which Hitchcock branched off to build his larger-than-life persona on his own.
But the seeds of his genius were firmly in place during this period, as evidenced by “Notorious” (1946), which represents the high point of Hitchcock’s early career. The Mata Hari-like romance is one of those rare, clockwork-perfect thrillers in which every element falls precisely in place, pulling off a number of sneaky Hitchcock coups so effectively, many audiences may overlook those innovations altogether (two particularly notorious examples: the zoom from a balcony overlooking a cocktail party down to a tight close-up of a key clenched in Ingrid Bergman’s hands and the seemingly endless embrace between Bergman and Grant that craftily trumped the Production Code’s time limits on screen kisses).
The extras on this disc are rich enough to rival Criterion’s earlier release of the film, exploring the director’s creative flourishes, the evolution of Ben Hecht’s Oscar-nominated screenplay (referencing, but not including, the alternate endings) and the ways in which Hitchcock established the prototype for countless spy movies to follow, spelling out the many debts the James Bond franchise owes to the director.
Of course, many of those analogies, including Hitch’s penchant for incorporating such landmarks as Mount Rushmore or the Golden Gate Bridge into his intrigues, would take full form later in the director’s career. But as much as Hitchcock reached to outdo himself with each successive film, nothing compares to the sophisticated elegance of “Notorious.”