Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 10: September 2009


Offtopic Perspective

Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins

This four-disc DVD set is part of Mill Creek Entertainment’s “Legends Series” and a 20-movie pack. In this case, that means 18 early Alfred Hitchcock movies, all b&w including six silents, and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. There’s an extra: 55 minutes of trailers from movies throughout Hitchcock’s career. This isn’t some beautifully-remastered retrospective—but you’re getting 18 movies, two TV episodes and an hour of trailers for $8 or so. As with some other newish Mill Creek sets, this one uses double-layer single-sided discs rather than double-sided single-layer discs, so the labels are a lot easier to read. Also, the menu’s are more “DVD-like,” not the old set of stills.

Since Alfred Hitchcock directed everything here, I don’t note the director in each mini-review.

Disc 1

The Lady Vanishes, 1938, b&w. Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Basil Radford, Mary Clare, Emile Boreo. 1:37 [1:35]

What a start for a set! I’d only vaguely heard of this first-rate movie before.

The movie begins in some Central European hotel, where too many people are stuck because the train’s snowed in. Lots of comedy with two stuffy English types forced to share the maid’s room, three apparently-wealthy young women having a final get-together before one of them goes off to marry someone with title and money who she may not love, and a young man rehearsing heavy-footed folk dancers in the floor over the young woman’s room. Oh, and the former nanny for some children, headed back to England.

Next day, they all head for the train—but the nanny’s mislaid a bag and the young woman helps her out. In the process, a flowerbox pushed off a ledge from above, quite clearly intended for the nanny, and strikes the young woman on the head, not quite knocking her out…but she’s swooning as the train pulls away. She and the nanny find themselves sharing a first-class compartment with an Italian couple and a stern older woman. At one point, the two go off to have tea, using a special tea the nanny always carries with her, and there’s interaction with the Britishers.

All of which is setup—because when the young woman wakes from a nap, the nanny’s gone. And everybody says she was never there.

What a start for an intriguing plot, enriched by a psychiatrist on the train (picking up a patient at the next station to take to a hospital), the young man’s presence in the crowded, smoky coach car, and lots more. Throw in a nun in high heels, magic boxes, adultery, two people who think cricket is more important than possible abduction, international intrigue… The plot turns out to be intricate, confusing, suspenseful, enriched with humor and the kind of thing that requires a master director—which, fortunately, it has. There’s even a little romance.

Any time I feel the need to watch the last quarter of a movie on our regular TV because I’m too intrigued to wait another day, I know I’ve got a winner. In this case, the story’s interesting, the direction is…well, Hitchcock, the acting is good, the photography is…well, again, Hitchcock. Great stuff, pretty much a masterpiece and enormously entertaining. The print’s about as good as “VHS-quality” ever gets. A winner and a classic: As good as they get. An easy $2.50.

The Farmer’s Wife, 1928, b&w, silent (with music). Jameson Thomas, Lillian Hall-Davis, Gordon Harker, Ruth Maitland. 2:09.

Hitchcock wasn’t always devoted to suspense, not even suspense hybrids such as The Lady Vanishes. This early silent (with music at least partly specific to the movie, since the only vocal portion, a men’s chorus, arrives at the point where a male glee club is starting up in the movie) is pure comedy—a cross between romantic comedy and British rural comedy.

Here’s the plot, in its entirety. A farmer—that is, the master of the farm—is a widower. After his daughter weds (some years later?), he decides he should marry again. With the help of his housekeeper, an attractive younger woman who’s intelligent and has a good personality, he draws up a list of possibilities. Then he goes after each one—basically arriving at their doorstep (or in one case confronting them during a party at another previous possibility’s house), saying he wants to get married again, and telling them they’re the one. Maybe a trifle more of an actual request, but not much. He gets turned down, in some cases with laughter, in one with a hysterical fit (after he says something mean about the woman after she rejects him). Finally, dejected, he comes to realize that he should have been looking closer to home…and finds his wife. (Who, notably, is by far the prettiest, nicest and most suitable of the lot.)

That’s it. Oh, there’s lots of mild comedy turns along the way, including an extended party sequence involving his handyman, who he’s loaned to one of his potential mates to announce people at her party—and the outfit the farmhand’s required to wear, with pants that he can’t close and is holding up all the time. But that’s it. You’ve just read the entire plot, spoilers and all.

I like the more natural pacing of some older movies. I’m not quite sure that this story is enough to hold up for more than two hours, even with Jameson Thomas’ remarkable facial expressions. It’s one of those silents where I wonder whether sight-readers would get a lot more dialogue—or whether all that stuff that doesn’t show up on cards is just nonsense. (One IMDB review says this version was recorded at “the wrong speed,” but that seems unlikely given the natural pace of everything in the film. I should learn never to pay any attention to IMDB reviews…)

Well-directed, to be sure, also well photographed, well acted and generally a good print. But it’s a bit slight to get more than $1.50.

The Manxman, 1929, b&w, silent (orchestral score, not apparently related). Carl Brisson, Malcolm Keen, Anny Ondra, Randle Ayrton. 1:30 [1:50].

A fisherman on the Isle of Man is best friends with a rising young barrister—and is wooing a barmaid, but her father forbids that because he’s poor. So he goes off to Africa to seek his fortune, telling the barrister to take care of her in the meantime. Which the barrister does, with predictable results—especially once they get a telegram saying the fisherman’s dead.

He’s not. He later returns with his fortune. He marries the young woman (apparently she’s too gutless to say she doesn’t love him, or maybe that’s Just Not Done on the Isle of Man), who turns out to be expecting, albeit not with his child. Some time after the child is born, she leaves and convinces the barrister—on the road to becoming Deemster, which is apparently what the magistrate is called on the Isle of Man—to hide her away. But she pines for more affection, tells the Deemster he has to make a choice, and goes off to take the child away from the fisherman. Who won’t give up the child.

She jumps into the ocean but is saved—and shows up in court (on the Deemster’s first official day) on the minor charge of attempted suicide. The fisherman also shows up…and the father finally figures out what’s going on. As you might expect, there is no happy ending.

Or maybe that was all that was happening. This silent really requires you to read lips to get much out of it, with titles few and far between. The leads seem to emote mostly with their eyes, and the barrister and woman both seem perpetually semi-hysterical. I think this is one primarily for Hitchcock completists; it’s not terrible, but it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. $1.00.

The Cheney Vase (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), 1955, b&w. Darren McGavin, Carolyn Jones, Patricia Collinge, Ruta Lee. 0:25.

Remember when half-hour TV shows actually had 25 minutes and 30 seconds of show? In the case of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that seems to means a 22-minute pocket drama and lots of time for Hitchcock to do his schtick before and after.

A ne’er-do-well gets canned from his job at a museum and, using a forged letter of recommendation (his girlfriend is the museum head’s secretary), gets a job caring for a disabled elderly art patron and amateur artist—who has The Cheney Vase, which the museum (and a shady German art dealer) wants to buy. He figures he can nab the vase, sell it and take off…and for some reason feels he needs to isolate the woman while trying to find it.

There is, as you might expect, a twist.

Darren McGavin is good in the role, but despite Hitchcock and “golden age” credentials, I thought this was pretty ordinary stuff. The print’s decent. Given that it’s less than half an hour, I’d never give it more than $0.75 unless it was a masterpiece; being generous, I’ll say $0.35.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), 1962, b&w. Diana Dors, Brandon De Wilde, David J. Stewart. 0:25

A carnival magician with a devilish appearance steps out of his trailer and sees a person sprawled unconscious over a grating—and discovers it’s not a drunken bum but a sick teenager. Rescued, the teen turns out to be an escapee from some institution, a little simple-minded. He thinks the magician is the devil and his wife (and assistant, in the usual short outfit) is an angel.

She’s no angel. She’s carrying on with a highwire artist. The kid watches the magic act and is terrified when the magician’s sawing her in half. Later, she confides to him that the magician really is the devil and the magic’s in the wand. Somehow, this is enough to convince him to kill the magician—and, in what ensues, leave the boyfriend passed out, drunk, in the magician’s trailer, and, eventually, well, if the assistant in the saw trick is unconscious…

There have been many nasty little stories based on the sawing-the-woman-in-half trick. This is one of them. Yes, Robert Bloch wrote it; yes, it’s Hitchcock. But it’s basically a nasty piece of work. Give the show’s sponsor credit: This episode was deemed unsuitable and never shown as part of the series (until syndication). It should have stayed lost. Not worth a dime, and a blemish on the disc.

Disc 2

Rich and Strange, 1931, b&w. Henry Kendall, Joan Barry, Percy Marmont, Betty Amann, Elsie Randolph. 1:32 [1:23].

I’m not sure what to make of this, but I do know that without Hitchcock’s name, I’d write it off as a pointless, sketchy picture with mostly unlikable characters and a plot that makes little sense. It involves a married middle-class couple (with a blowhard husband) of little means who suddenly acquire an inheritance. They go on a cruise on which he’s terribly seasick for many days and she befriends a dashing Commodore (Marmont). When he gets better, he’s befriended by (and takes a liking to) a supposed princess. (There’s an absurd “old maid” also [Randolph], interfering with everybody.) The princess is a gold-digger and after digging all his gold (there wasn’t that much), departs. The woman should leave with the dashing man who clearly loves her and will take care of her, but she’s devoted to her unfaithful, boorish husband. Then, on their return voyage (on a lesser vessel), there’s some sort of accident, they’re trapped in their cabin and abandoned, but they get out and are picked up by a Chinese junk. And wind up back at home.

Hitchcock makes heavy use of title cards as transitions. I found them reminiscent of silents but a poor substitute for flow, in a movie that feels like a set of isolated incidents. Some IMDB reviewers call this a dark comedy, but I found nothing particularly amusing, unless it’s the annoying overplayed “old maid.” All in all, this was more irritating than enjoyable, but Hitchcock completists might enjoy it. At best $0.75.

The 39 Steps, 1935, b&w. Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, Wylie Watson. 1:26 [1:23].

This is more like it. A proper thriller that plays fair with the viewer and is good, solid, well-directed entertainment. I won’t give you the whole plot just in case you haven’t seen this one, but it involves a female spy-for-hire, a mysterious alien protagonist (he’s Canadian!), espionage within Britain by foreign agents, police misunderstandings (quite understandable ones), feats of prodigious memory and a lot of Scotland. You get murder (but no gore), shooting, trains and bridges, political humor, music halls…and charming innkeepers.

I could probably poke tiny holes in the plot, but no more so than in any good thriller. The acting’s fine—low-key, which suits the plot. The print’s not perfect, but pretty good, and this one’s a classic--an easy $2.

Secret Agent, 1936, b&w. John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young. 1:26.

In this delightful romantic comedy… OK, it’s an espionage thriller—although there is comedy and romance. Set in World War I, it involves a hush-hush British spy organization (but with “R” rather than “M” as the head), a returning soldier who’s conveniently “died” as reported in the press as he’s being recruited to do a little counterespionage, a beautiful woman posing as his wife…and Peter Lorre being Peter Lorre, as over the top as you’d expect.

Well directed, lots of interesting camerawork and segues, well acted, suspenseful. The final third is action-packed, with much of it on a train (always great for thrillers). The climactic point seemed a bit contrived, but only a bit. Another classic and another easy $2.

Champagne, 1928, b&w, silent (unrelated music). Betty Balfour, Gordon Harker, Jean Bradin, Ferdinand von Alten. 1:26 [1:25].

Another very early silent (this time with wholly unrelated classical music, some of it Elgar). The madcap daughter of a wealthy New Yorker flies off in his plane to meet up with her boyfriend (the father does not approve, thinking the boyfriend a golddigger) who’s on a cruise to France. She gets over to the ship, apparently abandoning the plane in the process. They argue (he feels that she’s calling all the shots), he’s seasick a lot (Hitchcock seems to love mal de mer), she meets a sinister man…

Next, we’re in Paris, where she’s entertaining a bunch of young flapper-types, changing gowns every two minutes, generally living it up. Her father shows up and tells her he lost all his money; they’re penniless. Let’s see…she goes to sell jewels and has the case full of them. The young man shows up, with a good job, and offers to take care of her and her father but she refuses. She’s sharing a dismal little apartment with her father. The sinister man shows up from time to time—especially in the club where she gets a job as a hostess.

It all winds up with a romantic-comedy ending (the father was just teaching her a lesson, the young man’s really OK, the sinister man…well, I won’t reveal that one). All in all, I found it OK as a bit of fluff. Not much more than fluff, though. There’s a problem shared with other Hitchcock silents: If you don’t lip read, you’re missing a lot; there are relatively few intertitles. Let’s say $1.00.

Blackmail, 1929, b&w. Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Cyril Richard. 1:24.

At first, I wondered whether this was a mislabeled silent: There’s no real dialog for the first eight minutes, although lots of conversations take place for lipreaders in the crowd. I guess that’s a mannerism, as is the frequent use of old ahooga car horns in the music track. (Checking IMDB, this was apparently Hitchcock’s first talkie, which may explain it.) The plot: Scotland Yard detective’s girlfriend is a little bored with him, goes walking with an artist, winds up in artist’s flat, stabs (and kills) artist when he misreads her intentions. She walks around in a seeming daze for some time—actually, she seemed to be in a daze throughout the picture, or maybe she’s just a very subtle actress.

Scotland Yard investigates the murder but come up with nearly nothing—and her boyfriend is one of those investigating. He removes a glove from the scene that he thinks (correctly) belongs to her. Next thing we know, a stranger who was nearby the murder scene is walking in to the shop where she works (and lives?), aiming to blackmail them based on having the other glove. But the stranger’s an ex-con, and…well, he flees, he dies in the chase, she wants to confess but there’s nothing to confess to, and the movie ends. Sorry if these are plot spoilers, but it isn’t much of a plot.

It also isn’t, to my mind, much of a thriller, despite some Hitchcockian visual devices. The actors seemed remarkably flat and uninteresting, the blackmail peril never really developed, she was—in fact—acting in self-defense and… I guess you have to be a Hitchcock fan. (Reading the first few of many enthusiastic IMDB reviews, it does seem clear that I’m insufficiently fond of early Hitchcock.) I’ll give it $1.25.

Disc 3

Easy Virtue, 1928, b&w, silent (with possibly-related music). Isabel Jeans, Franklin Dyall, Eric Bransby Williams, Robin Irvine, Violet Farebrother, Frank Elliott. 1:29 [1:20].

Another silent, another non-thriller. This time, the focus is on a woman who becomes a symbol of “easy virtue.” First, she’s divorced by her apparently-abusive husband because she might have spent time unchaperoned with a painter as he was preparing her formal portrait. This is scandalous—particularly because the painter died and left her his estate. Did she actually commit adultery? No indication, and it seems not to matter.

She goes off to the South of France to hide. She meets and falls in love with another Englishman, and it’s mutual. He doesn’t want to know her background. They marry. He brings her back to his family’s country estate. His mother, a wildly overdrawn harridan, despises her with a passion. (His mother also keeps pushing his former girlfriend in his way…) The husband is, unfortunately, a mama’s boy; the mother manages to turn him against his wife even before The Truth Emerges.

As you’d expect, the mother eventually figures out that Larita, the wife, is Larita, The Scandal. The father thinks that’s all irrelevant. The old girlfriend, remarkably, wants to make things right between the couple. And there’s a climax with a houseparty at which Larita’s first husband shows up. It all ends with an uncontested second divorce ending with paparazzi (they weren’t called that then) facing her down and her telling them to go ahead and shoot, because there’s nothing left to kill.

It’s melodrama. The mother overacts so badly as to be ludicrous—she’s the Wicked Witch of the Manor, but in this case triumphant. Larita mostly smokes and doesn’t seem to have a wide range of expression. There are nice touches, however. The price that follows is generous—for true Hitchcock completists only, but it is a good print. $1.00.

Jamaica Inn, 1939, b&w. Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, Leslie Banks, Marie Ney, Robert Newton. 1:48/1:38 [1:30].

Hitchcock’s fan letter to Cornwall—or not so much. A newly orphaned young woman (O’Hara) travels to live with her aunt at the Jamaica Inn on the Cornish coast—but the coach won’t even stop there, instead leaving her off at the local squire’s mansion down the road. He takes her to the inn, and the real plot begins.

The innkeeper (who has no guests) has a pirate gang that deliberately causes shipwrecks (by hiding the nearby light), loots the ships and kills any survivors. But, as it turns out, the innkeeper reports to…well, if you’ve seen many older Westerns, you can guess: The most respectable local citizen, which is to say the squire. There’s suspicion among the cutthroats because they don’t seem to be getting as much loot as they should, and the innkeeper manages to turn that suspicion against the newest member—who, as it turns out, is from The Authorities, trying to crack the case. We find that out after they hang him, the young woman rescues him (don’t ask), they make their way to the squire’s house…

Lots more plot, a fair amount of suspense, loads of bad-weather scenery and a mixed ending. Charles Laughton overplays the self-satisfied squire to the extreme (no scenery left unchewed), but that might be right for the occasion. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s worth $1.50.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, 1926, b&w, silent (unrelated score). Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, June, Malcolm Keen, Ivor Novello. 1:23 [1:29].

The box says this is Hitchcock’s first thriller. It certainly has some Hitchcock trademarks—in-camera special effects, for example. Otherwise, “early Hitchcock” may be the most important thing to say. That, and that this is a mediocre-to-poor print. Frankly, I almost gave up part way through: Between repetition and other effects probably meant to create a mood but done in a way I found maddening, and the visual quality, it barely seemed worthwhile. Some of the plot devices were obvious devices, the kind of thing a spoof movie would highlight.

The basic plot: “The Avenger” is shooting fair-haired women every Tuesday (or every other Tuesday) evening in London, following a geographic pattern. A lodger shows up at the home of one fair-haired “mannequin” (model? entertainer?) (acted by “June,” no other name given) with one apparent aspect of the killer…and the girl is sort of involved with a high-handed police detective who’s assigned to the case. As things progress, we get stupidity on all sides, a lynch mob and a happy ending. Thrilling? Well, maybe I’m not the right audience. I found it mostly annoying and wildly overacted (but, of course, it’s a silent). I’d only recommend this for completists, and given the print quality I’ll say $0.75.

The Ring, 1927, b&w, silent (with apparently-unrelated orchestral music). Carl Brisson, Lillian Hall-Davis, Ian Hunter, Forrester Harvey, Harry Terry, Gordon Harker. 1:56 [1:29].

The plot’s simple enough. We start in a carnival (lots of carnival fun scenes), part of which is a challenge for anyone who can stay in the ring more than a round with a boxer billed as “One Round” Jack Sander. Handsome man charms the ticket-taker (who, as it turns out, is the boxer’s fiancée) and cold-cocks Sander—and later reveals that he’s The Champ, and if Sander’s good enough, the champ will hire him as a sparring partner.

That happens, the couple marries—and it’s obvious from the start that the wife has eyes as much or more for the champ as for her husband. Husband fights his way up the card. Along the way, we get typical early Hitchcock special effects, a wedding-party scene with Sander’s trainer (Gordon Harker, one of Hitchcock’s early regulars) chugging beer until he passes out, a much later party scene in Sander’s flat with crazed flapper dancing (would they really be playing a phonograph record, piano, and ukulele simultaneously while gesticulating as though they’d gone mad?) and more.

I don’t know quite what to make of this one. Extended boxing scenes. Over-acting from the hero (and others, but he’s got the wild eyes also typical of silent Hitchcock). Another movie for lip-readers. A fairly good print most of the time. Some gratuitous racism (including the n-word in one of the few titles, there for no reason at all). Not a thriller as such, and really not much of a plot. Hitchcock wrote as well as directing. This version appears is missing nearly half an hour, which might make a big difference. Call it $1.00.

Young and Innocent, 1937, b&w. Nova Pilbeam, Derrick de Marney, Percy Marmont, Edward Rigby. 1:23.

Sort of a thriller, sort of a romantic comedy. Guy sees drowned woman from cliff, runs down to see what’s what, runs off to find help—just as two women stroll along and see her (strangled with a raincoat belt), and assume he was fleeing the scene. Police make the same assumption, find that the woman had purchased a story from him (he’s a writer), turn this into “victim was paying off suspect,” and assert they have a fool-proof case, enough so no further investigation is required.

He escapes, going out to try to find the raincoat (he knows where he lost it) and prove he’s innocent by returning with raincoat and belt (what? you can’t buy another raincoat and substitute belts? they’re uniquely identifiable?). The daughter of the chief constable gets involved, driving him hither and yon after first finding him annoying. Long scene in a posh hotel with a Gentleman of Low-Cost Leisure putting on the ritz. In the end, only a wildly implausible situation saves the day. There’s never any sort of resolution as to why the murder happened or why the suspect was framed: As a murder mystery, it’s a washout. (Also, I find it hard to accept that having a band perform in blackface for no reason at all was so normal in 1937 that it doesn’t even deserve comment in most reviews.)

Good mostly for the humor, although I suppose it’s suspenseful enough. Enjoyable on the whole. I’ll call it $1.00.

Disc 4

Juno and the Paycock, 1930, b&w. Barry Fitzgerald, Maire O’Neill, Edward Chapman, Sidney Morgan, Sara Allgood. 1:25 [1:34!].

I honestly don’t know what to make of this one—a family drama set in Ireland during The Troubles, occasionally punctuated by gunfire, but with seemingly little going on except steady drinking and broad Irish accents. The print’s decent, the soundtrack’s very noisy, and the picture—well, I found it hard to watch all the way through without nodding off and, indeed, may have missed part of the second quarter. (It doesn’t help that people’s heads were frequently cut off—which could be a remastering problem, but otherwise reflects really poor cinematography.) I clearly wasn’t the target audience—I read “taut” in an IMDB review and just didn’t see it. Of course, I haven’t read the play it’s based on. Charitably, $0.75.

Sabotage, 1936, b&w. Oskar Homolka, Sylvia Sidney, Desmond Tester, John Loder. 1:16.

I’d already seen this—but that was on a movie set that came with a failed DVD magazine, not one of the 50-classics sets. So I watched it again. Probably just as well: This print was better quality, although the sound’s damaged. A movie theater owner—“Verloc,” played by Homolka—is also a saboteur in London. His American wife doesn’t suspect anything, but the greengrocer’s assistant next door to the theater is actually a Scotland Yard agent. At the climax, Verloc manages to get his wife’s much younger brother blown up in act of supposedly delivering a film canister and package (on a slow-moving London bus)—and shows the banality of evil in his attempts to justify or ignore his actions to her.

Not great Hitchcock, but it is a thriller. I was not at all enthralled last time around (particularly because the movie was supposed to be DOA, which sounded like a much better movie). This time? It’s taut and well-directed; I’ll give it $1.50.

The Skin Game, 1931, b&w. C.V. France, Helen Haye, Jill Esmond, Edmund Gwenn, John Longdon, Phyllis Konstam, Edward Chapman. 1:17.

An odd one, dealing with property conflicts and morality. One family’s been established in a rural area for generations and has tenant farmers. A brash upstart businessman buys out a neighbor and moves to oust their tenants—and then moves to buy another property that would effectively surround the family, vowing to build factories to make their lives miserable. In the process of an auction that the upstart wins (paying too much for the property), the businessman’s daughter-in-law faints after one of those special effects that Hitchcock liked so much he’d repeat it until you were sick of it (the face of someone else at the auction keeps swooping towards her as though it was a ghost). Turns out the daughter-in-law Has A Past.

All turns out badly for almost everybody involved. The noble family head has abandoned his principles to save his view (and, although he’d forgotten entirely about them, his tenants); one life’s been lost; a whole family’s been driven out of the area.

This one moves right along, with a fair amount of suspense. It has some of the awful cinematography of some other early Hitchcock sound pictures, with heads cut off and the like, and there are problems with the soundtrack—at times making dialogue nearly unintelligible. Still, I’ll give it $1.25.

Number Seventeen, 1932, b&w. Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Barry Jones, Ann Casson, Henry Caine, Garry Marsh. 1:03 [1:05].

This is a strange one, slow in parts, heavy on comic turns and problematic identities, with some thrilling aspects—and in the end seeming, well, odd. There’s a vacant house that may be a safe house, a corpse who isn’t a corpse, a squatter who’s a pickpocket but also honest as the day is long, a bystander who’s not all that innocent, a neighbor girl who—I never did figure that one out. A remarkable, if long, climax set on both a speeding train and a speeding bus, hammering home the lesson that it may be a bad idea to kill the entire crew of a locomotive if you don’t know how locomotives work.

In the end, this seemed more heavy-handed comedy than deft thriller—and there are a few more of the “heads? Who needs to see heads?” shots. The sound’s not great. Odd though it is, it’s always interesting, so I’ll give it $1.25.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934, b&w. Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, Frank Vosper, Hugh Wakefield, Nova Pilbeam. 1:15.

The last movie in the set is also one of the best, ending on a high note. A thoroughly satisfying thriller with a consistent plot, reasonable complexity, a seemingly-incidental bit near the beginning that turns out to be crucial to the finale, and Peter Lorre as a villain. (What? You expected Lorre as romantic lead?)

The plot involves a possible political assassination and a child held for a form of ransom. Other than that, there’s little reason to discuss the plot—and good reason not to, if you haven’t seen this one. Occasional problems with sound in a generally-solid print are all that reduce this to $1.75.

Bonus: Hitchcock Trailers. 0:55.

The last movie wasn’t the last thing on the set. Instead, although not listed on the disc label, there’s this remarkable bonus—19 trailers for Hitchcock movies, nearly an hour in all, with 19 chapter marks in case you want to find a specific one. (Given Mill Creek’s usual practice of having four chapters per film, this is special treatment.)

Quite a range of trailers (including one for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), including a few narrated or introduced by Hitchcock—with a six minute item for Psycho that includes maybe three seconds of footage at the end. None of the trailers is for a film in this set. Excluding uncredited war movies and Hitchcock’s TV stuff, IMDB shows 32 Hitchcock movies later than the ones in this set, so it’s a broadly representative collection, including most of his most famous movies. Good sound, good picture, good fun. Even though it’s not a movie at all, it’s easily worth $1.00.

Summing Up

A few true classics here: The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent. One classic weakened by occasional sound problems: The Man Who Knew Too Much. Six more possibly worth a second viewing, and another six on the cusp at $1. That’s $22.50 for fifteen movies and the trailers.

Then there are the others. One TV episode that made me want to wash my hands after watching it, another that I’d never watch again and three movies just not very good. They total $2.60—and yes, I would take The Lady Vanishes over all five put together.

So let’s just say $22.50, or $16.50 if you leave out the “on the cusp” group. Either way, at $8 the set’s a bargain. I would say “all the more so if you’re a true Hitchcock fan,” but in that case you’ll be out buying the “approved” DVDs with, presumably, higher-quality prints.

I thought it would be interesting to see what you’d have to do to buy “legitimate,” fully restored, name-brand versions of these movies.

·         Criterion offers The Lady Vanishes for $26.99 and The 39 Steps for $27.49. Criterion’s reputation is solid, so I’m sure these are far superior.

·         Lions Gate offers The Ring, The Manxman, Rich and Strange, The Skin Game and a fifth film, Murder!, in a three-disc $22.49 “Alfred Hitchcock Box Set” mastered from 35mm stock that should be much higher quality.

·         MGM offers Young and Innocent, Sabotage and The Lodger for $17.99 each.

·         A few are available as $9.99 DVD-Rs, manufactured on demand. I have no idea whether these “Synergy” discs are significantly restored.

·         There’s a $24.99 “enhanced edition” of The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1934 version), also on DVD-R, from Triad Productions.

So it looks as though you can buy definitely superior, remastered, probably restored versions of ten of these movies for a total of $155.93. For a completist and Hitchcock fan, it’s probably worthwhile.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 10, Whole Issue 120, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

Opinions herein may not represent those of Lyrasis or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2009 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.