Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide

  • First part of an in-depth series with a unique viewpoint on the Master of Suspense
  • Reclaiming the roots of Hitchcock: focusing on the iconic director’s British years
  • Best known for his Hollywood classics but his early films are also essential viewing
  • Contrary to popular belief, NONE of Hitchcock’s films are public domain anywhere
  • Despite this, poor quality bootlegs have flooded the market, ripping off fans worldwide
  • This simple guide makes it easy to find the best official Blu-ray, DVD and digital releases

Note: this is the first of 60-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.

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 widely 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 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.


Contents


Setting the scene

Young Alfred Hitchcock, early 1920s

Young Alfred, 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 non-directorial silents Hitch worked on is far more typical. The last of of his own silents, 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 actual 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.

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 and streaming services. I won’t cover every single Hitch film in this series of guides but will detail every one of his British works, certain aspects of which even most hardcore fans and experts are utterly confused by. In addition, I’ll uncover hitherto hidden information about certain US films surprisingly existing in many different versions, and which among their various releases to seek out or avoid.

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 (it is “Pat”), 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, were fair game – but only in the US and not since the start of 1996. Despite this, budget DVD companies in the US (and elsewhere) continue to release unlicensed DVDs using the poor quality prints previously used for US public domain video transfers.

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 were produced after then, 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 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

Sceptics are fond of arguing that if Hitch’s films were copyrighted, illicit copies wouldn’t be sold on Amazon or eBay (they are) or hosted on the biggest online repository of public domain material, the Internet Archive. Well, as of the time of writing, at least on the latter they aren’t, as I’ve worked with them to purge the lot. Thousands of them. Likewise, doubters say why aren’t copyright holders getting them removed from YouTube? Again, they are, but it’s the very definition of a Sisyphean task. The righteous are few but the pirates are many.

National Archives: Copyright and Related Rights | Duration of Copyright flowchart

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

Hitch gleefully laying that public domain myth to rest

Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: British Film Restorations and Collections


Films in the Collectors’ Guide

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

The 39 Stats: Charting Alfred Hitchcock's Obsessions infographic by Adam Frost and Zhenia Vasiliev, 2013

Infographic by Adam Frost and Zhenia Vasiliev, 2013

Just for fun: the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Crossword for August 10th, 2019 was a Hitchcock special!


For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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