September 01, 2004

NEW DVD RELEASES: A box packed with Hitchcock goodies

"We're working as fast as we can." That's the answer I receive almost
every time I ask someone in the DVD business, usually at the request
of a reader, why particular films and TV shows have yet to be released
in the format.

It's easy to take a recently released film and rush it to market;
these days, they even produce the DVD extras while the film is in
production. But in the case of old material, there's restoration to be
done, not to mention the search for production footage and the other
DVD extras we now expect or the putting together of a historical
retrospective on a movie.

But the wait is worth it when it comes to something like Warner's
release of eight titles from Alfred Hitchcock, seven of which have
never been released on DVD. The one that has, "Strangers on a Train"
(FOUR STARS out of four stars, $26.99), is easily the best of show and
is now packaged, as are all the others, in boxes boasting the original
poster art.

It is also now a two-disc affair, containing, as did the earlier
release, two versions of Hitch's film about a tennis player, played
Farley Granger, who meets chatty playboy Robert Walker on train and
becomes embroiled in a plot where each man would rid the other of
someone who is making his life miserable.

The differences in the two versions are minimal -- but in one case,
meaningful -- and they are addressed in a well-put-together commentary
pieced together from interviews with director Peter Bogdanovich,
biographer Andrew Wilson, screenwriter Joseph Stefano and Patricia
Highsmith, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. Also new is
a making-of documentary with Granger, critic Richard Schickel and
Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia.

Except for 1940's thrilling "Foreign Correspondent" (FOUR STARS out of
four stars, $19.97), with Joel McCrea caught up in a spy ring with
reporters Robert Benchley and George the other six films are all
lesser Hitchcock. That's to say they're mostly compelling and always
entertaining, but not as rich. The wild card is the director's 1941
deviation from his usual themes to make a screwball comedy, "Mr. And
Mrs. Smith" (TWO STARS out of four stars, $19.97), about married
couple Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, who via a technicality
find themselves officially unhitched. After a fight, they decide to
test their new freedom. Lombard sparkles as usual, but the film

Also from 1941, "Suspicion" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97)
has that great scene with the glowing glass of milk. Joan Fontaine won
an Oscar for her portrayal of the wallflower bride of dashing Cary
Grant, who she's convinced is trying to kill her. The film, however,
suffers from an improbable ending -- one we learn in the making-of doc
was enforced by the Production Code. From 1950, the overwrought and
undernourished "Stage Fright" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97)
stars Jane Wyman as a drama student who attempts to clear framed
Richard Todd of a murder charge by acting the role of a maid to
theater star Marlene Dietrich.

From 1953, "I Confess" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97) helped
propagate the misconception that Hitchcock's movies (and later
episodes of his TV series) hung on a twist, as in the case of
Montgomery Clift's priest, who has heard a man confess a murder and is
unable to exonerate himself when he is accused of the crime.

"The Wrong Man," (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97) from 1956,
boils Hitchcock down to his filmmaking essence: Henry Fonda is a
musician accused of a crime he didn't commit, and every move he makes
to prove his innocence only gets him in deeper. It's interesting
mostly for the semi-documentary style the director tried out (and
never returned to.). Finally, there's the clever but vastly overrated
"Dial M for Murder" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.96), an
adaptation of a popular play about a man (played here by Ray Milland)
plotting to have his rich, unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly) murdered.
Initially released in 1954 in 3D, it was restored and revived in that
format in the 1980s, but the DVD is the flat print, which means the
image suffers from a halo effect created by the original use of
multiple cameras. The disc contains a brief documentary about 3D, but
apparently no consideration was given to attempting to replicate the
process for this disc.

If you're anything like a Hitchcock fan, you'll want all these, so you
would be wise to invest in "Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature
Collection," which contains all seven movies as well as the previously
released Special Edition of "North By Northwest." (If you already have
that one, you can give to a friend who will be forever grateful.) The
box set lists for $99.92, but it will be discounted significantly at
most stores and on the Internet, making it a very large bargain.
Calling Dr. Spock

There will be a lot of Trekkies with hand-me-downs to distribute (or
post on eBay) with the release of "Star Trek The Original Series --
The Complete First Season" (FOUR STARS out of four stars, Paramount,
$129.99). It's the first of three sets that replace those original
single discs that each contained two of the original episodes. The
next installments will follow in November and December, an obvious
Klingon plot to bankrupt the good people of Earth.

The first season is in a plastic yellow case that contains eight
discs; 28 of the original episodes (and the coming week's previews)
are on the first seven. The season finale is on the eighth, which also
contains about 2 hours of retrospective featurettes. The transfers are
the same used for the original releases, and if you've never seen
them, you'll be impressed at how sharp they are. The sound has been
remixed into 5.1 Surround to great effect, although purists have the
original 2.0 option.

It should also be noted that if you buy this set at Best Buy or Media
Play, you will get yet another disc of extras, although this was not
provided for review.
Lucy & Bullwinkle

It's a very good week for classic TV. "I Love Lucy -- The Complete
Second Season" (FOUR STARS out four stars Paramount, $69.99) contains
all 32 episodes -- including the classic "Job Switching" and the
episodes preceding the birth of Little Ricky -- of the 1952-53 season.
It comes on five discs and includes an amazing array of outtakes, cut
scenes and looking-back featurettes.

"Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends: Complete Season 2" (FOUR STARS out of
four stars, Sony, $39.98) provides four discs' worth of evidence from
1962-63 that Jay Ward was some sort of comic genius and that, as
satire, the various permutations of this show were almost as good as
"The Simpsons."
A great British director

Alan Clarke was one of the best directors you've never heard of,
primarily because he worked in English television. But his fans
include some of Great Britain's finest actors, including Tim Roth, Ray
Winstone ("Sexy Beast") and Gary Oldman, all of whom appear in films
included in "The Alan Clarke Collection" (Blue Underground, $99.95).
Also included is director Gus Van Sant, who named his recent film
"Elephant" in tribute to the film of the same title in this

Originally shown on the BBC, "Elephant" (THREE STARS out of four
stars) explores the trouble in Northern Ireland by looking at 18
killings committed by the IRA, and, like Van Sant's Columbine-inspired
drama, steadfastly refuses to draw conclusions or wring its hands over
social ills.

Clarke's reputation as a tough-minded realist was made by 1977's
"Scum" (THREE STARS out of four stars), a television drama starring a
young Winstone as a "borstal boy," a detainee in one of Britain's
notoriously cruel juvenile prisons of the era. When the BBC, which had
commissioned it, refused to show it, it became a news story, and the
notoriety aided Clarke in remaking it as superior 1979 feature film
(FOUR STARS out of four stars), also included here, with almost
entirely the same cast.

He was back to TV for 1982's "Made In Britain" (FOUR STARS out of four
stars), the first drama to seriously explore the growing violence of
racist skinheads and Britain's introduction to the dynamo that is Tim
Roth. Equally important and brutal is 1988's "The Firm" (THREE STARS
out of four stars) starring Gary Oldman as a middle-class bloke whose
alter ego is that of a ringleader of soccer hooligans.

The five-disc set, which includes interviews with Oldman (whose first
film as a director, "Nil by Mouth" starred Winstone and owes a serious
debt to Clarke) and Roth (ditto for his first directing effort, "The
War Zone"), ends with a 1991 documentary "Director: Alan Clarke," done
in England the year after his death.

'Passion of the Christ' arrives

Per instructions of Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, Fox did not supply
reviewers with advance copies of "The Passion of the Christ" ($29.98),
but we are assured this is the same version seen in theaters,
available either letter-boxed or in full screen, with no extras.
However, Anchor Bay sent along "The Animated Passion" (THREE STARS out
of four stars, $14.98), a kid-friendly telling (i.e. fairly bloodless)
of the New Testament story of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
Another kind of 'Passion'

Meanwhile, Paramount has been so kind as to collect three "South Park"
episodes under the title "The Passion of the Jew" (THREE STARS out of
four stars, $19.99) after last season's show in which Cartman sees
Gibson's movie and has even more ammunition with which to torture a
Jewish friend. A crazed cartoon Gibson makes a guest appearance and
has his wallet stolen.

Odds & ends

Also in stores this week: the 1952 film adaptation of the William Inge
play "Come Back, Little Sheba," with Burt Lancaster (THREE STARS out
of four stars, Paramount, $14.99); a less successful 1958 adaptation
of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms," with a miscast Sophia
Loren, Tony Perkins and Burl Ives; the made-for-cable "Ike: Countdown
to D-Day" (THREE STARS out of four stars, Columbia-Tristar, $24.96),
shown earlier this year on A&E, with Tom Selleck making a surprisingly
good Dwight Eisenhower; a new two-DVD Criterion Collection inspection
of David Cronenberg's fascinating but unfollowable 1983 media-horror
fable "Videodrome" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $39.95); and "Chris
Rock: Never Scared" (TWO STARS out of four stars, HBO, $19.96) in
which America's funniest man, in his fourth HBO special, proves he is
only human after all.

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