Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide

  • First part of an in-depth series giving a totally unique insight into the Master’s oeuvre, focusing on the British years
  • The iconic director’s best known for his Hollywood classics but his early films are also essential viewing
  • Contrary to popular belief, NONE of Hitchcock’s films are in the public domain – but poor quality bootlegs have flooded the market
  • This simple guide makes it easy to find the very best Blu-ray, DVD or digital releases

Collecting Alfred Hitchcock’s catalogue is fairly easy when it comes to his better known and generally more fêted US-made films from 1940 onwards, as they’ve been available in good quality editions right from the birth of home video. However, for his British films of the 1920s and 1930s it’s a very different story. The number of authentic looking but poor quality bootlegs far outweigh official releases and up until now, choosing the right ones has been like a game of Russian roulette with all but one chamber loaded.

Well, gamble no more, because help is at hand: this series of guides finally takes all the guesswork out of the equation. Firstly we’ll have some background before going on to detail every official release of each film worldwide, itemising exactly what you should acquire, wherever you are. Alongside those are supplementary articles discussing lesser known aspects of the man and his work, presenting much new and unique research. I will of course be keeping them all regularly updated.

Note: this is the first of 50-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.


Contents


Setting the scene

Young Alfred Hitchcock, early 1920s

Young Alfred Hitchcock, early 1920s

Like so many émigré filmmakers before and since, the fact that Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (1899–1980) was wooed away from his native England to the bright lights and big bucks of Hollywood is well known, as are the classics he made there. Much less known, however, is the fine body of work that actually got him the gig. During his early years in the British film industry, from the spring of 1920 to the spring of 1939, Hitch worked on 20-odd shorts and features in various capacities and earned a sole directing credit for 27 more. Most of the former and three of the latter, the uncompleted Number 13 (1922), The Mountain Eagle (1926) and An Elastic Affair (1930), are lost and no known copies exist. While disappointing, this isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. Up to 90% of all silent films are regularly cited to have disappeared forever, along with many early talkies. Certainly, the poor survival rate of the other silents Hitch worked on is far more typical. The last of them, Blackmail (1929), was produced in both silent and sound versions. Similarly, Murder! (1930), an early talkie, had a separate but simultaneously shot German-language version, titled Mary (1931).

Thus it was largely in the UK that he honed his craft and cranked out an accomplished series of films within two decades, quickly becoming acknowledged as Britain’s top director in the process. And for very good reason. In every other piece of Hitch-related writing you’ll see this or that title being touted as “the first true Hitchcock film.” Absolute cobblers. In fact, the first true Hitchcock film was his first, namely The Pleasure Garden (1925). That’s right: everything you love about Hitch was there in variable quantity right from the start. Absolutely contrary to popular opinion, Hitch’s early work consists of far more than crude sketches that were mere prototypes for the American masterpieces that followed. Admittedly, some of his early films could be a little uneven, as were his later ones, but though he may later have equalled them, he simply never bettered the best – and there are a lot of those. It’s usually abundantly clear anyone claiming otherwise hasn’t seen any earlier works and good old confirmation bias compels them to convince themselves they’re not missing out on anything. Either that or if they have seen any it was via some poor quality, unrestored and incomplete bargain bin DVD that understandably didn’t do a thing for them. Now that I can relate to: many now-favourite classics were first viewed via terrible condition transfers and left me wondering what the fuss was all about. When it comes to Hitch in particular, I’ve waded through all the dross so you don’t have to.

Alma Reville aka Mrs Hitchcock, Alfred and their daughter Pat, 1941

Alma Reville aka Mrs Hitchcock, Alfred and their daughter Pat, 1941

“He was ‘Hitch’ to everybody, even my mother, and if somebody didn’t know him, you could tell. He’d be called ‘Alfred.'” And plain ‘Al’? She laughs, “Never. I think my father would have ignored it.” – Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, speaking in 1984

Hitch never forgot his British roots: The Westcliff Cine Club Visits Mr. Hitchcock in Hollywood (1963).


Slaying the public domain myth

Let’s get one simple fact straight: none of Hitch’s films, including his British ones, are in the public domain and all of them are fully copyrighted. The many unlicensed DVD, Blu-ray and digital home video releases are all bootlegs. Yup: every single one of them. It’s a common misapprehension they’re anything but, which for once isn’t only perpetuated by the bootleggers themselves. Everywhere you look, supposed Hitchcock “experts”, from fans to film professors and historians, parrot this canard over and over again. But a lie, however many times it’s repeated, is still a lie. In fact Hitch’s films have been protected by copyright almost globally since their original release. It’s true his British films were temporarily public domain in the US only. But even that ended on 1st January 1996, when Title 17 of the Copyright Law of the United States was amended (article 104A) to include copyright restorations on foreign or “alien” works. This brought it into line with Directive 93/98/EEC in the EU, part of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, to which the US became a signatory on 8th December 1994, effective as of 1st January 1995.

The upshot is that for a while, miscellaneous unrestored copies being screened and released on 8, 16 and 35mm film, and later videocassette and LaserDisc, was fair game – but only in the US and not since the start of 1996. Unauthorised releases in the rest of the world, on any format, have always been bootlegs. For instance, the DVD era commenced with the format’s Japanese launch in October 1996, before being rolled out internationally over the next couple of years. Therefore, as they come after the fact, every unlicensed DVD is illegal. It’s impossible for them to be otherwise. A lot more on this fascinating subject has been brought to light by film historian Nick Cooper’s truly groundbreaking research:

Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright

For further insight into the sheer scale of the Hitch bootleg phenomenon, see:

Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off

For years, fans had to put up with those terrible copies, especially as they were the only way to see many of Hitch’s British films, short of catching a rare authorised public screening. Thankfully that’s no longer the case, as all of his features are now available on licensed DVD, with many also appearing on BD.

Hitch gleefully laying that public domain myth to rest: Alfred Hitchcock digging a grave

Hitch gleefully laying that public domain myth to rest


Restorations and quality releases

The Hitchcock 9 BFI poster, 2012

The Hitchcock 9 BFI poster, 2012

Sadly, like most silent films, Hitch’s have been subject to much abuse and loss of footage since their original release, with some even lost completely. However, the rest have been recently restored: In 2012, the BFI concluded a three-year drive to produce comprehensive new restorations of Hitch’s nine extant silent features, which they dubbed ‘The Hitchcock 9’. It was the largest and most costly such project the archive had ever undertaken and now allows the films to shine more brightly and completely than ever. Additionally, most of them received a new, specially commissioned score. The composers and musicians were a mixture of old hands at scoring silents and those new to the game, with the resultant accompaniments ranging from period to modern and many points in between.

The Restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s Silent Films

Thankfully, apart from his one missing short, there are no major issues with any of Hitch’s British talkies.  They’re all in complete, as-originally-released condition, via the licensed releases. Some, like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Jamaica Inn, have also had very recent digital restrations and now look incredible.

There’s never been a better time to collect Hitch’s British films and despite the overall seeming abundance of releases, there are fewer viable options than at first apparent, which makes things even easier. Although in time the occasional new pre-1940 release may trickle out, don’t delay any longer as new issues covering the period are virtually at a standstill. Despite the BFI spearheading his silents’ high profile restoration, in this age of declining physical media sales, the rate of labels willing to take a punt on releasing them has been disappointingly slow. Only a few have appeared so far and unfortunately no more are presently known to be in the offing. In fact, it’s quite possible they’ll never be available on disc in their entirety, though I sincerely hope I’ll eventually be proved wrong.

Essentially, if you’re sitting on the fence about picking up any of Hitch’s early films in the hope of one day having access to upgraded versions of what’s already available, don’t hold your breath. The time to buy is right now. Another thing: with only a few notable exceptions, the majority of quality Hitch DVDs are European (region 2) PAL releases and there are only a handful of non-Euro (region B) BDs. If you don’t yet have multi-region playback capability, why on earth not? It’s easier and cheaper than you might think and crucial for acquiring the best versions possible.

All authorised releases use the best prints  available at the time they were produced and most include a moderate to copious amount of extras. Transfers on more recent DVDs are often improved even further and post-2012 releases of the silents obviously feature the Hitchcock 9 versions. Of course, even – especially – for films as old as this, the BDs look absolutely stunning and blow their DVD counterparts out of the water. Naturally, the uptick in terms of fine detail and superior grain resolution becomes more apparent the larger your screen. Though not all of the latest restorations have been released in HD, it’s not such a huge deal (with one exception), as the previous versions are generally so good.


The verdict: guilty of genius

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) poster by Greg White aka TightywhiteArt, 2014

The Lodger (1926) by Greg White aka TightywhiteArt, 2014

The sentence? Collect and watch Hitch’s films, of course, preferably starting with his British work. If you’re as yet unfamiliar with it and initially just want to dip your toes in the water, allow me: of his silents, The Lodger is easily the best-known and most widely available. However, instead I strongly recommend the more punchy, thrilling Blackmail as your first port of call. Quite honestly, The Lodger, as great as it is, wouldn’t even get my vote as second-best Hitch silent; that honour would likely go to the restored version of The Pleasure Garden. Ahead of its eventual – hopeful  home video release, I urge you to catch a live screening anytime you get the chance. As for Hitch’s talkies, you can’t go far wrong with The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Lady Vanishes or especially my fave, The 39 Steps. If you plan to pick up a goodly chunk or even all of Hitch’s silents and early talkies, you should start by getting at least one of the DVD box sets covering the period:

All are derived from the same masters and pretty much interchangeable in terms of quality. The US, UK, German and French sets are cheapest and easiest to obtain, unless you really need the others’ Spanish, Dutch or Polish subtitles. Note the French Premières oeuvres set has non-removable subs, so choose another unless you’re prepared to put up with them. Alternatively, you may rip and reburn its discs, omitting the sub stream. A few players, like those from Oppo, have a useful “subtitle shift” feature to move them completely offscreen.

Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) pop art print by Odysseas Constantine for Art & Hue, 2018

Pop art print by Odysseas Constantine for Art & Hue, 2018

Despite what the odd erroneous listing may say, almost all licensed releases worldwide are fully English-friendly with original English audio or intertitles by default and where present, optional subs. The sole exceptions are the French set above and their German-language Mary, which is only available on DVD with German or forced French subs. After you’ve acquired a suitable box set or two you can fill in the gaps with indivdual releases, especially those from Network or Criterion. If you intend building a career-spanning Hitch DVD collection from the ground up, by all means start with one of the massive, completely English-friendly, French box sets. Just one of those will enable you to pick up half of his films in one go. Most links throughout the series of guides lead to places you can buy the item in question; if not it’s because they’re rare or deleted and I could only find temporary listings, eg eBay. In those cases I’ve at least linked to relevant info on the release that may help you source it elsewhere.

We’re incredibly privileged to be able to collect almost all of Hitch’s British films in excellent condition on home video, but there are a few casualties. Aside from those missing in action, the only print of The Pleasure Garden currently available is heavily butchered and one to skip unless you’re desperate, in which case set your expectations low. At least we’ve the fully restored Hitchcock 9 version to look forward to, unlike with poor old Easy Virtue, which only survives in battered, incomplete condition. Not to worry: that still leaves us with a whopping 22 of the Master’s motherland masterpieces to enjoy unfettered, along with a couple of other films he also  worked on and the prospect of more to come. Happy uneasy viewing!

Secret Agent aka El agente secreto (1936, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Argentinian poster

Secret Agent aka El agente secreto (1936) Argentinian poster


Films in the Collectors’ Guide

Those not yet linked are coming very soon. Subscribe to the email list to be notified.

  • The White Shadow (1923)
  • The Pleasure Garden (1925)
  • The Mountain Eagle (1926)
  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)
  • Downhill (1927)
  • Easy Virtue (1927)
  • The Ring (1927)
  • The Farmer’s Wife (1928)
  • Champagne (1928)
  • The Manxman (1929)
  • Blackmail (1929)
  • Elstree Calling (1930)
  • Juno and the Paycock (1930)
  • Murder! (1930) and Mary (1931)
  • The Skin Game (1931)
  • Rich and Strange (1931)
  • Number Seventeen (1932)
  • Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
  • The 39 Steps (1935)
  • Secret Agent (1936)
  • Sabotage (1936)
  • Young and Innocent (1937)
  • The Lady Vanishes (1938)
  • Jamaica Inn (1939)
  • Lifeboat (1944)
  • Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache (1944)
  • Vertigo (1958)
  • Topaz (1969)

Those not yet linked are coming very soon. Subscribe to the email list to be notified.

For more detailed specifications of the releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This guide will be kept updated, so if you have any questions or suggestions please leave a comment below.

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see this site’s About page.

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