Posted Wed Jun 1, 2022 at 10:30 AM PDT by David Krauss
A chase across the face of Mount Rushmore. A massive flock of vicious birds perched upon a playground jungle gym poised for attack. A frantic pursuit to the top of the Statue of Liberty. A crazed, knife-wielding maniac ripping open a shower curtain. A wheelchair-bound man with a broken leg peering into the rear windows of his tenement neighbors through a camera’s telephoto lens. A woman clutching the key to a notorious wine cellar where Nazi secrets may be hidden. An assassin escaping a rain-soaked murder scene amid a sea of jostling umbrellas. A merry-go-round kicked into high gear that spins off its axis while terrified fair-goers flee. A desperate man chasing the object of his desire up the narrow staircase of a church bell tower while battling the debilitating symptoms of vertigo. These are just a handful of iconic images crafted by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Elegant and sophisticated, clever and witty, yet always accessible and relatable, Hitchcock fashioned countless thrillers over the course of a career that spanned six decades. He chronicled espionage, murder, blackmail, psychosis, obsession, political intrigue, and bizarre phenomena all while pushing the cinematic envelope with innovative sight and sound techniques that enhance his arresting style. Sensual romances, risqué innuendoes, and dark yearnings also pepper his films. Along with his trademark MacGuffins, such titillations are essential distractions that add to the fun and make his stories more human. Sexual tension complements the other myriad tensions coursing through Hitchcock’s pictures and it’s often just as delectable as the nail-biting moments that make us squirm.
Since I joined the High-Def Digest staff in 2009, I’ve reviewed 27 Hitchcock movies for the site. That’s about half of the legendary director’s feature film output. While a few Hitchcock pictures have yet to make their Blu-ray debut (Sabotage, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith chief among them), we’re blessed to have the bulk of Hitchcock's cinematic canon in high definition, as well as nine movies in 4K UHD, and one title in its native 3D. Not all of them are classics, but even Hitchcock’s misfires have merits and are just as fascinating to watch, assess, and analyze as his more renowned works.
The following list, though, isn’t about Hitchcock's failures, also-rans, guilty pleasures, and undiscovered gems. It’s about the crème-de-la-crème of Hitchcock in the home video realm. Below you’ll find a few quick takes on the best looking and the best sounding Hitchcock thrillers in 1080p and 2160p. First and foremost, this is an HD and 4K UHD list. If one of your favorite Hitchcock masterworks didn't make the cut, it's not because it isn't worthy artistically; it's because another Hitchcock masterwork boasts better picture and audio quality...at least to my eyes and ears. I've only singled out five movies, but all of them define this brilliant craftsman who not only produced some of the most exciting and entertaining motion pictures of all time, but also advanced the medium’s artistry through his creatIve vision and fluency in the nuanced language of film.
Let’s sample five of this master baker’s most delicious creations that look good enough to eat…and sound great, too.
When I reviewed the first 4K UHD Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection in 2020, I called Vertigo “the crown jewel” of the set, and it remains the most breathtaking home video presentation of a Hitchcock film to date. The movie itself isn’t bad either. Vertigo may not rank as my favorite Hitchcock film (although it’s definitely up there), but I believe it to be the director’s finest. A masterpiece of mood, mystery, and slow-burn suspense, Vertigo casts a mesmerizing spell, and its equally hypnotic HDR10 transfer faithfully renders Robert Burks’ lush, colorful VistaVision cinematography that - believe it or not - is even more gorgeous than Kim Novak herself.
As I wrote in my review, “Provocative themes, shocking twists and turns, impeccable craftsmanship, inventive imagery, finely etched performances, overarching lyricism, and tension that grows ever tauter as the narrative progresses...all those key components of Hitchcock's best works are here. Vertigo, though, ramps them up to the same dizzying heights that force retired police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) to succumb to the title affliction. Like Scottie, viewers often feel a bit disoriented and imbalanced while watching Vertigo, and that's part of the film's allure, along with the obligatory icy Hitchcock Blonde (portrayed by an aloof, enigmatic, and magnetic Kim Novak), who achieves mythic status in this defining production.”
The particulars of the plot, as intriguing as they may be, really don’t matter. The disturbing underlying themes are what fuel the Vertigo narrative and Hitchcock’s stylish, often brash presentation. Beauty, at least in this film, is only skin deep, and Hitchcock takes that adage and runs with it, crafting serene, seductive, picture-perfect images that hide the deceptions and nefarious motives lurking underneath. Obsession, transformation, guilt, and burning desire swirl around this noir-ish tale of a damaged detective who falls down a rabbit hole after agreeing to tail a rich man’s mentally unbalanced wife. Hitchcock pulls out all the stops in this operatic opus that features stunning San Francisco locations, striking photographic effects, and a memorable chase up the steep steps of a claustrophobic church bell tower.
The video transfer has to be seen to be believed. Eye-popping color, seamless special effects, razor-sharp close-ups, and a glorious film-like feel are just a few of its joys, and though the DTS:X audio track won’t blow the roof off your house, it deftly honors this quiet film and Bernard Herrmann’s marvelous score. A bunch of great extras also enhance the disc, which is now available as a stand-alone release in both standard and steelbook packaging. I said it in 2020 and I’ll say it again: “Vertigo is one heady movie, and as Hitchcock spins his tangled yarn, he makes us dizzy...with delight.”
If I had to pick one Hitchcock flick that completely defines the director and reflects everything he has brought to the cinematic table over the course of his illustrious career, it would have to be North by Northwest. No contest, no discussion, a no-brainer. Other Hitchcock films may have more cachet, more notoriety, more gravitas, but this breathlessly paced, consistently thrilling concoction is hands-down the most fun.
So many memorable elements… Of course, tanned, debonair Cary Grant rushing into a desolate Indiana cornfield to evade a deadly crop-dusting plane intent on gunning him down tops the list, but the climactic chase across the treacherous face of Mount Rushmore - as preposterous as it is - ranks a close second. Then there’s the crackling sexual chemistry and titillating banter between Grant and the Hitchcock blonde du jour Eva Marie Saint, whose duplicitous portrayal drips with icy-hot allure; the suave villainy of the mellifluous James Mason; Martin Landau as a silent, hulking henchman; Bernard Herrmann’s dramatic and playful score... The list goes on and on.
As I wrote in my original review 13 years ago, “When screenwriter Ernest Lehman first began collaborating with the Master of Suspense, he aspired to create ‘the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,’ and many would agree North by Northwest is just that. The quintessential chase film, a blueprint for the modern action epic, and Hitchcock's personal homage to himself, this captivating transcontinental pursuit smoothly combines suspense, thrills, comedy, romance, and intrigue, and presents them with all the elegant artistry and brash innovation that has made Hitchcock one of cinema's most esteemed and admired directors.” Though I love many Hitchcock films for many different reasons, I would definitely choose North by Northwest as my desert island Hitchcock flick.
The fine grain structure, bold colors, and enhanced clarity of VistaVision make North by Northwest a Blu-ray natural, and Warner Home Video’s splashy restoration maximizes the impact of the process’ myriad attributes. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track immerses us in all the action (the bass boom when the crop-dusting plane hits the tanker truck is thunderous), and a sizable supplemental package sweetens the deal. The beautiful 50th Anniversary digibook edition is still available (albeit with a hefty price tag), but there’s also a disc-only release that fits everyone’s budget.
The shower. The stairs. The fruit cellar. Mother. Psycho is without a doubt Hitchcock’s most famous - and frightening - film, a low-budget tour de force that flipped the thriller genre on its ear and spawned the modern slasher flick. What starts as a brooding, atmospheric portrait of a woman on the run takes a hairpin turn the moment Janet Leigh steps into the shower, turns on the water, and confronts her wigged (and wigged-out) knife-wielding assailant. Psycho shocked audiences when it premiered in 1960, and though it’s tame when compared to the gory horror fare of today, it can still scare the bejesus out of you.
Especially in 4K UHD. Though John L. Russell’s gritty, naturalistic black-and-white cinematography doesn’t scream 2160p splendor, the terrific clarity and contrast of the HDR10 transfer makes Psycho more immersive and creepy than ever before, while remaining true to the film’s modest roots. Add a dynamite DTS:X track that makes full use of all the speakers during the torrential rain scenes and heightens the impact of Bernard Herrmann’s deliciously screechy score, and you’ve got the definitive home video presentation of this Hitchcock masterwork. A few snippets of cut footage add extra appeal to this release that includes all the supplements from the 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition. Like Vertigo, Psycho is also available in both stand-alone and steelbook editions.
As I wrote in my 2020 review, “Psycho is remembered as a physically violent film, marked by brutal slayings in the shower and on the stairs, and for its climactic chamber of horrors twist. Yet those three scenes comprise less than three minutes of the picture's 109-minute running time and feature surprisingly little gore. (Hitchcock's genius lies in his ability to make us think we see more than we actually do.) Sure, they leave an indelible impression, but they can't quite overshadow the more intriguing and complex psychological studies of both Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Marion Crane (Leigh), whose paths coincidentally and fatefully cross one dark and stormy night. That's where the true allure of Psycho lies, and Hitchcock expertly develops those characters so we identify and empathize with them. He also sprinkles in some welcome bits of ghoulish humor to take the edge off, and frames it all with his patented visual artistry. A close-up of an eye peering through a hole in the wall, reflections representing duality and duplicity, high and low angle shots altering perspective and enhancing a sense of unease…Hitchcock delicately and seamlessly weaves them into his fabric so we're only marginally aware of his technique.”
Perkins had as much trouble shedding the skin of Norman Bates as Norman had freeing himself from his domineering mother, but that’s only because his finely etched, nuanced portrayal is so riveting. Though he would allow Norman to consume him later in his career in a series of entertaining - if misguided - sequels, Perkins could never top his original performance, which was criminally denied a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Leigh, who reportedly never took a shower again after she completed her scenes, got a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nod for her terrific work, which stands the test of time and becomes more fascinating and dimensional each time I see the film.
Often imitated but never equaled, Psycho remains a crazy-good chiller that never loses its edge, no matter how often we revisit it. As I wrote in 2020, it’s “unique among Hitchcock films in its tone, execution, and look…[and] it's a movie to watch, enjoy, study, and scrutinize over and over again.”
I love the Hitchcock blondes, but there’s a reason the Master of Suspense cast the brunette Ingrid Bergman in three of his films over a four-year period in the late 1940s. Aside from her breathtaking beauty (always an important attribute to Hitchcock), Bergman is a great actress. I’d even go so far as to say she’s the best actress Hitchcock worked with during his long career. Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren may be the Hitchcock poster girls, but Bergman brings heart and soul, flesh and blood, and sweat and tears to her Hitchcock heroines. In Hitch’s artificial world of action, intrigue, and murder, she’s often the one real element.
Bergman could play anything - good girl, bad girl, saint, seductress, victim, patriot - and she plays them all in Notorious, one of Hitchcock’s most fully realized, suspenseful, and elegantly crafted motion pictures. Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most hypnotic film, Psycho may be the scariest, North by Northwest the most action-packed, but Notorious just might be the most perfect of all Hitchcock productions. Edgy, romantic, taut, sexy, substantive, and brimming with artistry and lyricism, Notorious grabs you from the first frame and holds you until that brilliant humdinger of an ending.
Cary Grant, who never looked more dashing or filed a more surly performance, portrays Devlin, a cynical government agent who enlists the services of Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the “notorious” daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, to go undercover and expose a ring of exiled Nazi conspirators in Rio de Janeiro. The plot sounds straightforward, but Ben Hecht’s literate, Oscar-nominated script focuses on the tangled relationships and myriad psychological conflicts that add complexity and spice to the story. Love vs. duty is a central theme, and issues of trust, jealousy, guilt, manipulation, and self-loathing - as well as a fascinating Oedipal relationship - fuel the film, but there’s plenty of agonizing tension, crackling sexual chemistry, and illicit deeds, too.
Hitchcock delivers one dynamite scene after another. In addition to the justifiably famous, lengthy zoom shot that begins on the second floor of a mansion and ends on an extreme close-up of Bergman’s hand fidgeting with a key, there’s the breathlessly tense wine cellar sequence, a telephone conversation that’s gotta be one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen on screen, several disorienting camera angles, and a climax that ranks among the most memorable - and quietest - in Hitchcock history. All that plus Grant, Bergman, the Oscar-nominated supporting work of the marvelous Claude Rains (it’s such a shame Hitchcock didn’t use him in any of his other pictures), and a virtuoso turn by Madame Konstantin, the film’s Machiavellian Madame Defarge.
Criterion’s 2019 Blu-ray outclasses the previous 2012 MGM release with a beautiful 4K restoration that’s largely drawn from the original camera negative, strong audio, and a bunch of fascinating supplements. Until we get a 4K UHD edition, this is the definitive presentation of Notorious, which in 2019 I called “a stirring, absorbing, emotionally involving, and artistically satisfying film that hits all the right notes - a symphony of suspense, if you will, conducted with nuance and gusto by the genre's most accomplished maestro.” Bravo, Hitch!
There’s no denying Hitchcock made his best pictures in Hollywood, but the formative and largely admirable films he produced across the pond in his native Great Britain merit attention, too. Such exciting, engrossing, and innovative thrillers as the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (which I prefer to the bloated 1956 remake), The 39 Steps (a fantastic forerunner to such action-packed, on-the-run classics as Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and North by Northwest), and Sabotage all contain the patented hallmarks Hitchcock would continue to cultivate, expand upon, and refine over the ensuing four decades of his career. I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s British period, and though I greatly appreciate and thoroughly enjoy all of the aforementioned movies, my vote for the best British Hitchcock flick goes to The Lady Vanishes.
What starts as a screwball comedy and for the first half-hour seems like the antithesis of all things Hitchcock quickly evolves into another quintessential Master of Suspense movie. The disappearance of a kindly old lady (Dame May Whitty) on a European train forms the crux of the plot, but the narrative really gets interesting when no one except the woman’s fleeting travel companion (Margaret Lockwood) believes she exists at all. Though the story has been recycled and reinvented several times, this is the original version, and it has no peer. Humorous antics, vivid characters, a love/hate relationship, claustrophobic tension, and an edge-of-your-seat shootout finale pepper and propel the tale, and though at times it feels as if Hitchcock is just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, nothing could be further from the truth. A master planner, the Master of Suspense meticulously mapped out almost every frame of every film he directed, and The Lady Vanishes proves once again how adept he is at molding myriad, often competing elements into a cohesive whole.
As I wrote in my 2011 review of the film, “There's no fluff or extraneous palaver gumming up the works; The Lady Vanishes is a prime example of lean, focused moviemaking. Though the film takes its time laying its groundwork and might seem initially aimless, don't doubt Hitchcock. Like the train on which most of the action takes place, it quickly picks up steam and barrels full throttle toward a thrilling climax. And along the way, there's plenty of snappy dialogue and witty repartee to sweeten the journey, much of it pointedly aimed at British society, apathy, and egotism.” There’s no love lost between Hitchcock and England here. In fact, Hitchcock seems almost eager to bite the hand that feeds him, which of course makes the movie more fun. Not surprisingly, Hitch would become a British expatriate just two years later when he bolted to Hollywood to make Rebecca for producer David O. Selznick and cement his status as one of cinema’s first bona fide auteurs.
Criterion’s video transfer may not be a stunner, but it’s by far the best home video rendering of this timeless classic. Clean and vibrant, with great clarity, excellent contrast, and a pleasing grayscale, this film-like presentation immerses us in the action, while solid audio and plenty of extras enhance the experience. So hop aboard and hang on for a turbulent and terrific rollercoaster ride. If you haven’t yet seen any of Hitchcock’s British films, The Lady Vanishes is a great introduction to a highly interesting period, and will surely whet your appetite for more.
HIGH-DEF DIGEST’S HITCHCOCK INDEX
If you’re interested in reading full reviews of dozens of Hitchcock movies, many of which come highly recommended, check out the links below, listed in chronological order by date of theatrical release with the name of the reviewer in parentheses.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) (David Krauss)
Blackmail (1929) (David Krauss)
Murder! (1930) (David Krauss)
Rich and Strange (1931) (David Krauss)
Number Seventeen (1932) (David Krauss)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (David Krauss)
The 39 Steps (1935) (David Krauss)
The Lady Vanishes (1938) (David Krauss)
Rebecca (1940) (David Krauss)
Foreign Correspondent (1940) (David Krauss)
Suspicion (1941) (David Krauss)
Saboteur (1942) (M. Enois Duarte)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (M. Enois Duarte)
Lifeboat (1944) (David Krauss)
Spellbound (1945) (David Krauss)
Notorious (1946) (David Krauss)
The Paradine Case (1947) (David Krauss)
Rope (1948) (Aaron Peck)
Under Capricorn (1949) (David Krauss)
Stage Fright (1950) (David Krauss)
Strangers on a Train (1951) (David Krauss)
I Confess (1953) (David Krauss)
Dial M for Murder (1954) (David Krauss)
Rear Window (1954) (David Krauss)
To Catch a Thief (1955) (David Krauss)
The Trouble with Harry (1956) (Matthew Hartman)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (Aaron Peck)
The Wrong Man (1957) (David Krauss)
Vertigo (1958) (David Krauss)
North by Northwest (1959) (David Krauss)
Psycho (1960) (David Krauss)
The Birds (1963) (David Krauss)
Marnie (1964) (M. Enois Duarte)
Torn Curtain (1966) (Aaron Peck)
Topaz (1969) (Aaron Peck)
Frenzy (1972) (Aaron Peck)
Family Plot (1976) (M. Enois Duarte)
The latest news on all things 4K Ultra HD, blu-ray and Gear.