4K UHD Blu-ray Review: The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection - Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), & The Birds (1963)

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In this dazzling new collection from Universal Studios, four of director Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films – including Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds – have been newly restored and transferred to 4K ultra high definition Blu-ray. Gathered together in one collection, although I just intended to spot check the transfers of a few of the films that I know particularly well, these 4K releases are so pristine that each title seduced me entirely, regardless of how many times I've seen the movies over the years.

Loaded with extra footage, including making-of-featurettes, analytical documentaries, interviews, an alternate ending to The Birds, and the original Hitchcock approved theatrical cut of Psycho (which had been unavailable on home entertainment in the past), this highly recommended box set serves up each film on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and offers a 4K digital code for the titles as well.

When I first received the set, I initially planned to give you a nice short overview of the transfer and bonus features of each movie but I was soon surprised to find myself so invigorated by these films I know so well that I decided to take a closer look at all four works in chronological order. In doing so, I hope to dissect not only what this new 4K box set release is like but also what it is that I find so very compelling about what we see, hear, and are meant to understand in each one of Hitchcock's movies.

Warning: This article contains gentle spoilers. Really, though, can you blame me? Reading about Hitchcock's movies is easily the most fun (and the most valuable) after you know just what the hell is going on. 

Rear Window (1954)

“If you don't pull me out of this swamp of boredom, I'm gonna do something drastic!” At the same time that James Stewart's L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries delivers this ultimatum to his boss by phone in Rear Window, we see through our wounded photojournalist's eyes for the first time the neighbor living in the Greenwich Village apartment building across the courtyard from Jeff who will manage to do both. Played with subtle menace by Raymond Burr, Lars Thorwald quickly becomes the new focus of Jeff's voyeuristic obsession in Rear Window

A creature of habit whose eyes earn him not only a living but also fuel him creatively, intellectually, and body and soul, after six weeks of being sidelined with a broken leg, the wheelchair-bound man has started to go a little stir crazy. Watching his neighbors like they're his new favorite soap opera, Jeff becomes fascinated by the comings-and-goings of those whom he and his dutiful nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) nickname Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts. But none of the residents capture his imagination quite as much as Lars Thorwald, who Jeff fears might have killed his wife.

While, much like Melanie Daniels in The Birds or Gavin Elster in Vertigo, no one believes Jeff at first – which is a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock's filmography – soon even his regal, high society girlfriend Lisa (played by the luminous Grace Kelly) must admit that Thorwald's behavior is so suspiciously puzzling that Jeff might be onto something after all.

Once again working with his frequent 1950s collaborator in the form of screenwriter John Michael Hayes (who also wrote To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, and Hitch's remake of his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much), Hitchcock's Rear Window is one of the filmmaker's most timelessly crowd-pleasing and accessible thrillers. Adapted from the 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder,” by Cornell Woolrich, the cleverly quippy, acerbic, and suspenseful script, which earned Hayes an Edgar Award and an Oscar nomination, might just be the best one that Hitchcock ever committed to the screen.

Riveting on multiple levels, because of the very overt way that Hitchcock weaves in voyeurism and scopophilia (which makes it the perfect film to pair with the director's masterpiece Vertigo, also starring Jimmy Stewart), it's arguably one of his most personal pictures due to its both celebration and criticism of a man who – much like Hitchcock and the audience – likes to watch.

Describing the film as a parable, in his 1954 review of Rear Window, critic turned director François Truffaut (who would later conduct in-depth interviews with Hitchcock, which were published in a masterful film reference book) argued that Rear Window was about cinema itself. For example, "the courtyard is the world, the reporter/photographer is the filmmaker, [and] the binoculars stand for the camera and its lenses,” he elegantly surmised in his piece and it's an intriguing assessment of Window's components overall.

Additionally of interest to me given the disability narrative at play throughout, since Jeff is forced to use a wheelchair and feels cut off from the world because of this, his desire to join the others and throw himself in the middle of dangerous, or exciting situations manifests itself in a myriad of ways. From gazing out the window with just his eyes to graduating to binoculars and then moving onto a telephoto lens, the temporarily disabled Jeff tries to get closer and closer to the action with each act of the movie. This openly phallic symbolism (which suggests that he feels impotent) becomes even more curious on repeat viewings. Moreover, we begin to see how bold the film is in its decision to let the women be the ones who actively help solve the Lars Thorwald mystery by throwing themselves into the middle of dicey situations in ways that Jeff – who is left only with his eyes – cannot.

Easily my favorite Grace Kelly performance in a Hitchcock film, followed by the underrated Dial “M” for Murder, and the lovely, lightly entertaining if, especially by comparison to Window, slight To Catch a Thief, even though she's nearly upstaged by her jaw-droppingly gorgeous costumes by Edith Head, Kelly exudes a delightful sense of mischief in Rear Window that's a joy to behold. 

And, fittingly for Hitch, it's only when her character Lisa puts her life on the line – to such an extent that all Stewart can do is helplessly watch – that Jeff becomes the most attracted to her sexually. Less interested in the regal beauty when she's six feet away from him than he is when she's sixty-five feet away and suddenly (slightly) less attainable, this spark of mortal danger lights a fire in their relationship like nothing else. 

Astonishingly, Kelly is even more ethereal in this 4K restoration than I've ever seen her before. The new edition improves each character's skin color and texture and boosts the soundscape to such an extent that we truly feel like we can hear those voices drifting across the courtyard to us in the richly textured DTS sound as though we're sitting in that wheelchair along with our audience surrogate, Jeff. 

Arriving with a plethora of bonus material you can pore over after you finish the film, Rear Window also works as a great gateway movie to new and young film fans looking to discover the work and range of the Master of Suspense. 

Vertigo (1958)

In my eyes, Alfred Hitchcock's most challenging and ambitious film (and also his best), Vertigo takes the voyeuristic behavior of James Stewart's male protagonist several steps further than the wheelchair sleuth he played in Rear Window to paint one of the most disturbing portraits of compulsive scopophilia ever committed to the screen.

Forced into retirement from the San Francisco Police Department when a rooftop chase leaves one officer dead and Stewart's veteran detective John “Scottie” Ferguson frozen with fear, although he's able to get rid of his cane and corset shortly into the movie, vertigo is one disability that might just be permanent.

Asked to do a favor for an old college acquaintance (Tom Helmore) who fears that his young wife (Kim Novak) has become suddenly possessed by a long-dead spirit as she disappears for hours at a time and can't remember where she's gone, Scottie begins to follow the beguiling beauty around the streets, shops, cemeteries, and landmark sites of San Francisco.

Growing increasingly infatuated with Novak's Madeleine Elster with each successive stop, although he's given permission to look this time in Vertigo as opposed to just spying on his neighbors on his own accord in Rear Window, there's something much more disturbing and primal about his desires in this one, which we begin to suspect even before the film enters its sinister second half. 

Drinking her in while committing to memory where every pin in her hair goes or how she sits on a pillow on the floor after he fishes her out of the San Francisco Bay (and undresses her offscreen at his home while he waits for her clothes to dry), while it's clear that Scottie is falling in love with his friend's wife, Hitchcock tries to play off any alarm we might feel in a variety of ways.

Still nursing quite the unrequited crush on her old college fiancé, Scottie's long-suffering best friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) becomes something of a red herring in Vertigo. She mercilessly teases Scottie about his obvious attraction to Madeleine and acts out in her frustration by painting a truly creepy portrait of herself in one scene and in another, follows her following friend around herself. Additionally shirking some of the responsibility for Scottie's behavior off on this idea of supernatural possession, it's only after Vertigo switches gears yet again and shows us the aftermath of the first half's twist that we realize that what Scottie has been feeling all along goes far beyond simple love.

Intriguingly, the film is said to be the favorite work in Hitchcock's filmography of the largest number of directors, including Vertigo obsessives Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. When you analyze what the film does, in leading us – like Scottie in his first day of following Madeleine through the streets of San Francisco – around the corner of so many half mysteries before it goes down an altogether different avenue moments later, their affection for the film on a structural level makes complete sense. But when you start to break it down from a psychosexual standpoint, there's much more there to dissect. From the way that Vertigo, like Stewart's Scottie, not only derives pleasure out of watching (which in itself is just like our relationship to film) but also wants to control or “direct” Madeleine's double Judy (also played by Novak) to look and act a certain way in the film's last act, Vertigo is about the role of a filmmaker above all.

One of the eeriest portraits of single-minded male obsession that I've ever seen, Vertigo is fascinating in the way that Judy is forced to submit to the whims of an aggressively dominant man who essentially breaks her down to get the performance he wants, much like Hitchcock did with Novak on the set. Whether you're watching the movie through a psychological, sex and gender, or purely filmic lens, there's so much in Vertigo to discuss that it's no wonder that, despite opening to mixed reviews in 1958, it's only grown in critical esteem over the years.

I will, of course, freely admit that Vertigo (which was adapted from Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's novel D'Entre Les Morts by screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor), undeniably plays the best the first time you watch it from a plot perspective alone. Similarly, much like other Hitchcock endeavors, it's a film that inspires a fast rewatch to take a closer look at the things you missed the first time around, now that you know how it all turns out.

Yet, everything else about Vertigo, from the subtleties in the performances (just look at what Bel Geddes can do with an eyebrow raise), to the long takes and dizzyingly vertiginous cinematography, to Bernard Herrmann's sweepingly romantic score, to everything going on just below the surface make it one movie that you can't help but want to revisit again and again.

While Vertigo has been restored and remastered multiple times over the years – and it's the Hitch film I've seen the most times in my life – once again, I became easily entranced by Hitch's masterpiece when I put the disc in to, as I'd intended, simply spot check the new 4K transfer.

Watching it through from start to finish one more time, I couldn't help but notice that this format boosts the clarity of each image like never before, which ensures a better match between shots that were filmed in the studio and those captured on the streets of San Francisco. Rendering the contrast between the formerly high polish interiors and airy, slightly blown out exteriors so that there's less of a jolt between the different textures, this effect is especially apparent in the sequence where Novak and Stewart wander around the woods of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which used to look ever so slightly dated in previous versions but absolutely shines in the new 4K release.

Filling the disc with some of my favorite previously available bonus features, including lengthy behind-the-scenes featurettes and mini-documentaries where everyone from those who worked on the film to others (including some of our greatest directors) share their passion for Vertigo, there's much to obsess over in this one.

Psycho (1960)

The crowning achievement of master composer Bernard Herrmann's career, although most people immediately conjure up the way that he uses the sounds of the instruments in his orchestra as weapons slicing through Janet Leigh's flesh in Psycho's notorious shower scene, the DTS soundtrack of the new 4K transfer has you looking over your shoulder as soon as the movie starts.

Assaulting your senses with fast-paced credits and music that pours out of every speaker in the most startling of ways, as brilliant as Hitchcock's horrific Psycho is as arguably the first mainstream slasher movie ever made, it would be nowhere near as effective without Bernard Herrmann's score. After all, sound is – as Francis Ford Coppola once famously said – at least half the picture. 

Shooting the film quickly, in black-and-white, and on the cheap with his own production company and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV unit at Universal after Paramount rejected his pitch to bring Robert Bloch's 1959 novel – inspired by the shocking case of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein – to the screen, Psycho is Hitchcock's greatest experimental effort.

Bloch's eponymous novel was adapted by relative newcomer Joseph Stefano, who word is was actually in therapy due to issues surrounding his own relationship with his mother when he penned the screenplay, which would go on to win him an Edgar Award.

A film so dependent upon surprises that not only did Hitchcock order that no fans be admitted into the theater after the movie started, he's also said to have asked his assistant to purchase any and all copies of the novel that she could find to keep prospective viewers in the dark.

Beginning like a seedy noir, then flirting with an old-fashioned detective story angle before it moves straight into horror, Psycho is revolutionary in the way that it shifts our sympathies to the man who will be revealed as the murderer (Anthony Perkins) fairly early into the movie, once it kills off its protagonist played by Janet Leigh. Never letting our minds wander or our attention waver, while this is easily the most harrowing comeuppance for one of Hitchcock's famous cool blondes – as Phoenix real estate secretary Leigh makes the reckless decision to embezzle forty thousand dollars from a lascivious, self-satisfied rich man and goes on the run – it also gives us one of the most disturbing misogynists in Hitch's entire filmography. 

Although Joseph Cotten's deceptively charming Uncle Charlie hated women with a gleeful passion in the brilliant, often overlooked masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt and you see various levels of Hitch's own sexual frustration with women throughout his filmography (see especially Vertigo and Marnie), it's presented to the most alarming degree in Psycho. Punishing women who dare turn him on, whether they're aware of this or – as is in the case of Leigh who is observed through a peephole – are not, the meek Perkins is so stunted in his sexual development that he's scapegoated and cast everything off on his “mother” once he dispatches the women who invade his thoughts.

“I don't hate her,” Norman Bates (Perkins) tells the sympathetic Marion Crane (Leigh) about his mother in their longest scene together, before he clarifies, “I hate what she's become.” As it turns out, what she becomes is him. And it's only after we know this that we realize how cleverly Bloch, Stefano, Perkins, and Hitchcock made us hate “her” before we understand that we too are guilty of a little internal misogyny in being so quick to blame this woman – who, by all accounts, might have been a piece of work as well – for all of Norman's problems.

Easily Hitchcock's most famous film, Psycho spawned a controversial shot-by-shot color remake from Gus Van Sant, along with numerous sequels, and TV spinoffs, including the critically acclaimed prequel Bates Motel). Sixty years after its release, Psycho still plays like gangbusters no matter how many times you've seen it but this latest 4K release is especially noteworthy.

Going back to restore the vintage frames and elements in Hitchcock's preferred original theatrical cut of the film, which was unveiled to audiences in 1960, as opposed to only giving us the version of the film that was most widely available on TV, VHS, and DVD over the past thirty years, this edition gives fans their choice of which cut they prefer to watch.

The main difference between the two versions is that the newer cut removed some of the film's more erotically charged moments to slightly sanitize it for everyday audiences watching today, which is kind of amazing when you consider the fact that it was even more sexually disturbing back in 1960. Yet either way that you watch Psycho, it will undoubtedly inspire goosebumps, sustained as much by the performances and what Hitchcock chooses to reveal when with clever camera angles as it is driven by Herrmann's nerve-shatteringly evocative score.

The Birds (1963)

Most likely owing to a childhood fear of wrongful persecution that developed after his father reportedly had him locked in a jail cell overnight when he was a young boy, almost as ubiquitous as the wrong man motif used throughout his filmography is the recurring Hitchcockian theme of nobody believing his protagonist when trouble arises.

From assuming that Iris Henderson is lying about the vanished Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes to L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries trying to get his friend at the NYPD to investigate his suspected murderer neighbor Lars Thorwald in Rear Window, Hitchcock movies are full of characters who could've prevented harm, if only someone had taken their dubious yet credible warnings more seriously. Sure enough, these instances are most memorable when coupled with a protagonist's innocence of a crime in Hitch's popular wrong man movies like North By Northwest. But beyond the two films that I cited earlier, one of my favorite examples of this intriguing dilemma is in The Birds, which uses internal misogyny and a woman's reputation against her to such an extent that otherwise intelligent characters refuse to believe their own eyes because it matches this "undesirable" woman's warnings that something very wrong is happening in the sky.

Of particular interest to viewers watching today in a post Me Too society where predominantly women (but also some men) still struggle to be believed when they recount the shocking actions that they've endured to bring their truth to light, The Birds stars then-newcomer Tippi Hendren as the mischievous daughter of a wealthy newspaper owner. Known for playing practical jokes, some of which have resulted in legal action, Tippi Hendren's heroine Melanie Daniels is a classic “woman with a past.”

Attracting the attention of a lawyer (Rod Taylor) who'd seen her in a recent court appearance, shortly into the movie, Melanie drives out to Bodega Bay, California to deliver two lovebirds to the eleven-year-old sister (Veronica Cartwright) of Taylor's Mitch Brenner, with whom she meets cute in a pet shop early on in the film.

Seeing the two size each other up in the store amid the backdrop of swarms of birds kept enclosed in cages, we can't help but wonder if the birds who will soon treat Melanie – and indeed everyone else – like prey are getting revenge on us for daring to try to corral and control them. And although we see and/or hear birds whenever Hedren is onscreen, Hitchcock waits an extended amount of time to deliver the first attack when – after she's delivered her small birdcage to Mitch's home – she rows back across Bodega Bay and a seagull swoops down to swipe her forehead, almost accidentally.

“That's the damndest thing I ever saw,” Mitch observes as he helps her out of the boat and brings her to a local cafe to clean the cut. But even though the birds draw first blood in Hitch's film, that action won't be their last by a long-shot as birds of all feathers begin to flock together and hunt down Bodega Bay residents in packs.

Trying to warn everyone – including her newspaperman father – to take her seriously after the next big assault, every woman watching can recognize the frustration in Melanie as we listen to her explain that no, she is not hysterical and is in fact telling the God's honest truth. Suddenly the object of ignorant suspicion by townspeople who start wondering if they're in the midst of a plague and if she – perhaps the embodiment of evil – has somehow brought this to them all, watching average citizens shamefully begin to embrace a ridiculous conspiracy theory makes The Birds especially timely in this era of 2020, COVID, and Trump.

Hitchcock's first film after Psycho, The Birds works exceptionally well as a double feature with its predecessor, given the way it seems to weirdly foreshadow the terror to come in the eerie sequence with Norman Bates where he discusses his love of not only taxidermy but especially of stuffing birds, whom he describes as passive creatures, while also likening them to his “harmless” mother.

Loosely based on Rebecca author Daphne du Maurier's titular 1952 short story, which was adapted for the screen by “Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine” contributor and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television writer Evan Hunter (who would go on to publish mystery novels under the name Ed McBain), The Birds was Hitchcock's first and only “creature feature.”

A monster movie Hitchcock style, and one that was made largely with real live birds as well as over two hundred thousand dollars worth of mechanical ones which were created specifically for the movie, the film was so intricate from a technical perspective that it required various departments to complete their work at other studios, including Fox, Disney, and MGM. Made without a conventional score, although he used source music occasionally throughout, the film's soundtrack mainly consists of the sounds of birds chirping, hooting, and flapping their wings as they soar through the air looking for their next victim.

And when you factor in the hell and injuries that Hitchcock allegedly put Hedren through on the set after she spurned his lustful advances (in an account that was released after the filmmaker's death and also backed up by her co-star Rod Taylor) as well as its horrific attack sequences, The Birds remains just as disturbing as ever. Cleaning up some of the dated effects evident in the old home video editions of The Birds, this flawless restoration and transfer to 4K makes the film look light-years better than I'd ever seen it before, particularly during the agonizing sequence where Melanie runs with the schoolkids away from both a murder of crows and murderous blackbirds, who've begun to flock together.

Taking horror in a different direction after he broke a new mold in Psycho, The Birds afforded the man – who famously said he hated actors – the ultimate opportunity to work with as few of them as possible to create one of his most uniquely suspenseful works, where one town refuses to listen to a woman they're prejudiced against . . . until its too late.

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