- Contrary to popular belief, NONE of Hitchcock’s films are in the public domain – anywhere
- Years of speculation and misinformation by cocksure commentators muddy the waters
- The most pirated classic filmmaker ever, with far more counterfeit than official releases
- His British films are hardest hit, causing much confusion for fans wanting quality copies
- For the first time, every film’s chain of title from theatrical release up to the present day
Note: this is part of an ongoing series of 150-odd Hitchcock articles; any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
There’s something strange afoot regarding our Alfred’s films. Particularly those from the first half of his 50-plus-year career, covering his early British years and initial US movies. They’re often thought of as being in the public domain, but they’re not. None of them. Nada. This makes it difficult for collectors wanting good quality releases, because there’s a huge flock of viciously cheap ‘n’ nasty versions out there, blackening not the sky, but the technical excellence of the great man’s reputation. Join me for a terrifying tale of monstrous bootlegs, far more frightening than anything the Master of Suspense himself could dream up…
- Will the real owners please stand up?
- A wolf in sheep’s clothing: beware the femme fatale
- Pirates, pirates everywhere, and not a drop worth drinking
- Rogues’ gallery: the bad and the beautiful
- Related articles
Will the real owners please stand up?
Ironically for the all-time Master of the crime thriller, Hitch’s films have been the victims of more crime than any other classic filmmaker. But who have they been stolen from? Let’s have a look at their historical copyright holders; since they were first made they’ve passed through the hands of various corporate entities:
Pleasure, Eagle, Lodger, Downhill, Easy, Waltzes, Man, 39 Steps, Secret, Sabotage, Young, Lady:
Gainsborough Pictures, Gaumont-British, etc → Rank Film Distributors (1941) → Carlton International (1997) → Granada International (2003) → ITV Global Entertainment Ltd (2004)
In the UK, home video releases have been issued by the following, which are essentially different iterations of the same company:
Pickwick Video (1982–1995) → renamed Carlton Video (1995–2004) → Granada Ventures (2005–2006) → ITV DVD (2006–2009) → ITV Studios (2009–present)
ITV have also licensed exclusively to Network DVD (later Network Distributing) since 2006 in the UK
Ring, Farmer, Champagne, Manxman, Blackmail, Juno, Elstree, Murder, Skin, Mary, Rich, Number:
British International Pictures → EMI (1970) → Thorn-EMI (1979) → Alan Bond (1986) → Cannon Group (1986) → Weintraub Entertainment (1987) → Movie Acquisitions Corporation (1991) → Lumiere Pictures (1993) → UGC UK (1996) → Canal+ Image UK (StudioCanal subsidiary, 1997) → StudioCanal Films (2012)
Mayflower Productions → Raymond Rohauer (1975) → Douris Corporation (1995) → Cohen Film Collection (2011)
Releases: see Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide entry
Releases: see Alfred Hitchcock Collectors Guide entry
American movies – this is a work in progress; please comment if you have any additions or corrections, especially for the titles in bold.
United Artists → Walter Wanger Productions (1946) → Time Life Films (1968?) → Caidin Trust (197?) → Castle Hill Productions (19??) → Westchester Films (2009) → Shout! Factory (2014) → present*
Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot:
Universal Pictures → present
20th Century Fox → Disney (2019) → present
Spellbound, The Paradine Case:
Vanguard Films → ABC (1966) → Disney (1995) → present
Transatlantic Pictures → Alfred Hitchcock (1956) → Universal (1983) → present
Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Dial M for Murder, The Wrong Man:
Warner → Associated Artists Productions (1956) → United Artists Television (1958) → Turner (1986) → Warner (1996) → present
Stage Fright started out as a Transatlantic Pictures film but was sold to Warner in pre-production
Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo:
Paramount Pictures → Alfred Hitchcock (1962, 1963, 1964, 1966) → Universal (1983) → present
To Catch a Thief:
Paramount Pictures → present
North by Northwest:
MGM → MGM/UA (1981) → Turner (1986) → Warner (1996) → present
Shamley Productions → Universal (1962) → present
Suspicion (TV series):
Revue Studios/Shamley → Universal Television (1963) → NBCUniversal Television Distribution (2004–present)
*Outside of America, the rights for some of the 1940s films are more complicated and vary almost from country to country. Regardless, earliest generation pre-print materials are all held in the US, so domestic transfers are all superior quality unless also licensed out abroad. The rest are usually poorer, being struck directly from foreign theatrical prints.
Full details on each film can be found here. A condition of licensing common to all legitimate home media is that the name and/or logo of the licensor or copyright holder must be prominently displayed on the packaging. Usually their ident is inserted just prior to the start of the main programme too. So if any Hitchcock film, on whatever format, is lacking at least one of the company names commensurate with the time of the format’s release, it’s almost certainly a bogus copy. Which brings us to…
A wolf in sheep’s clothing: beware the femme fatale
Curious to see the rest of her immediate kin? Just look at these beauties. Very tastefully designed, with absolutely gorgeous faux-embossed sleeves featuring immaculate tinted images. Don’t they just ooze quality? Unfortunately not: beauty is only skin deep and theirs merely serves to conceal the ugliness lying beneath. Yup: because they’re all bona fide bootlegs. Their actual transfers look bloody awful – like they’ve been VHS-recorded directly off a 1960s TV screen. Also, these DVDs, like other unrestored Hitch silents bootlegs, are untinted B&W, cropped, edited, transferred at the wrong speed and the images bob and weave so much that watching them will make you seasick. As if all that wasn’t enough, they’re topped off with ancient muffled, generic canned music, as their many annoyed Amazon reviewers will attest. Naturally, most of the aforementioned applies to Hitch’s ripped-off talkies too. Elsewhere in this Hitch series, I’ve uncovered the provenance of many of his bootlegs’ atrocious transfers; the one for this particular specimen is described in graphic detail here. But be warned: it’s not a pretty sight.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if most bootleggers put half as much effort into the quality of their content as they did their sleeves, they’d have far fewer complaints. But they couldn’t care less: they’ve got a great, low cost business model that works brilliantly and attractive sleeves are their honeytrap. Once they’ve got your money it’s immaterial whether you’re satisfied or not. You’d think eventually folk would wise up and the bootleggers would go out of business, but no: there are always a million more unsuspecting buyers ready to be easily parted from their money. Then there are the repeat offenders: those who buy these awful things over and over. They either don’t know or care the films can easily be had in much better quality, or they keep spending in the hope eventually they’ll turn up the odd nugget. They won’t. What they will do is keep funding and encouraging bootleggers and pirates to stay in business, thus killing off the market for quality restored releases.
It doesn’t help when blogs and film chat forums are crowded with armchair experts, hell bent on spreading their completely misguided, even deluded, but always cocksure opinions. Perhaps the most egregious one of all is that they’re happy to buy some crappy release, to make do until something better comes along. But the very fact they’re supporting the bootleg industry makes that possibility far less likely. The more money bootleggers make, the more they’re galvanised into saturating the market with shoddy goods. Ergo, shoddy goods are all we’ll ever get.
Pirates, pirates everywhere, and not a drop worth drinking
Every country worldwide is absolutely wallowing in homegrown Hitch bootlegs, mirroring the bewildering array of poor quality releases to be had from his fellow Londoner, Charlie Chaplin. As with the Little Tramp, fans had to put up with rotten copies of their earlier films – if they could see any copies at all – in the dark, dark days before widely available quality home video editions. You can learn, or if you’re old enough be reminded of, how bad they were by looking at the clips in any old Hitch documentary. Or via most present day bootlegs. Why on earth would anyone but a masochist want to put themselves through watching such garbage, when every extant Hitch film can easily and cheaply be had on great quality restored releases?
Owing to the ubiquity of Hitch’s British era rip-offs in particular, he’s easily the most heavily bootlegged classic film personage of all. That’s an accolade both he and his fans could do without but never fear: if a particular release or label isn’t mentioned in this series of guides, it’s almost certainly a bootleg. I’ve certainly listed every official pre-Hollywood Hitch BD in existence. You can get a sense of the overwhelming number of boot to official releases by looking up sale listings of any title, such as The Lodger. Despite it being well served in the US since 2008 on superb restored DVDs from MGM and, more recently, Criterion (with the bonus of the restored Downhill), eBay is still choked with boots; the same applies to collections of Hitch’s films. That’s even with the US having the best releases anywhere, so naturally the number skyrockets in countries with no official releases at all.
Sadly, owing to this rampant piracy, the likes of Germany, Spain and Australia each have just a tiny handful of quality official DVDs of his British films. Meanwhile, Italy has a sorry total of only three official releases. That’s it. In many other countries the situation is exactly the same – if they have any official discs at all. But those same markets are all awash with Hitch bootlegs. You see now how this works? Cause and effect, especially in the world of niche film releases on home video. Detailing all the Hitch-infringing labels to avoid would be impossible: there are literally hundreds of them churning out thousands of different discs. Though having said that, I previously compiled a substantial line-up of general offenders. There’s also a 2008-compiled list covering the first 10 years of US Hitch boot DVD labels kicking around the internet with over 50 entries on it, but dozens more have appeared stateside in the interim. Basically, the only licensed US DVDs of Hitch’s British films are from Criterion, Kino, Lionsgate, MGM and Cohen; all others are bootlegs. Another point is that while the persistent thieves are happy to bootleg or pirate actual films, they hardly ever touch any of their many extras. Mind you, squatting out space-saving, single-layer, plain ‘vanilla’ discs is par for the course with boots in general.
Most bootleg transfers of Hitch’s British films are derived from very worn and often edited 8mm and 16mm reduction prints from the US. These were show-at-home and TV broadcast copies, and often reflect edits made at the time of their original theatrical release or later, due to censorship or time constraints. They date back to the years when said films were in the US public domain, which they are no longer, and have since winged their way around the world. Where they appear on PAL DVDs, they’re always copied straight from NTSC sources – usually US boots – so additionally have the motion blur inherent to that slipshod transfer method. Many overseas bootlegs only contain a dub track, omitting the original English, and said dubs are frequently incomplete, being recorded for further-edited foreign release versions, making them even more likely to still be the transfers used.
Though Hitch’s British films endure the bulk of the thievery, almost as frequently the same fate befalls a seemingly arbitrary handful of his 1940s American movies. Even mainstream British newspapers have been guilty of transatlantic Hitch copyright theft. In those cases I doubt it was due to malice or greed; simply that the Hitchcock = public domain mindset is so ubiquitous no one bothered to pay due diligence before okaying their DVD giveaways. In terms of public awareness, there’s a lot of lost ground to make up.
Rogues’ gallery: the bad and the beautiful
Buy Hitch bootlegs and this is what you can expect:
For lots more comparative screenshots, see The Lodger Collectors’ Guide.
Of course, these screenshots only tell half the story: in motion, the bootlegs constantly bounce around inside the frame, making it even more difficult to focus on their already scratched and blurry images. Density and contrast fluctuate wildly from shot to shot and more often than not, they’re badly cropped and severely edited, losing up to a whole third of the original running time. Conversely, the official releases are clear, complete and rock steady, gliding along as serenely as a swan on a still lake. There really is no comparison. Read on for more real-life horror stories:
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Part 2: British Film Restorations and Collections
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
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.