Hitchcock remains master of suspense

Alfred Hitchcock directed his first movie in 1925 and his last in 1976, yet he remains a household name as cinema's "master of suspense."

Owing to his popularity, most of Hitch's movies have been available in home-video formats for years. But the older the film, the duller and scratchier the cassette is likely to look.

So it's great news that Warner Home Video is releasing seven Hitchcock pictures this month, the first time they've been available in the DVD format.

Also in "The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection," as it's being billed, is the great "Strangers on a Train" in a remastered edition with many bonus features.

All of this is happening just after a new biography, Patrick McGilligan's sharply written "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light," reached bookstores.

What's the secret behind Hitchock's perennial popularity? One part of it is the perennial popularity of suspense movies. Audiences love thrillers now as much as ever - especially when they're done with taste, tact, and just the right amount of understatement. Hitch always delivered those qualities, partly because of censorship rules he had to contend with, but also because he knew it was classier to get under moviegoers' skins than to hit them over the head.

Another big reason for Hitch's enduring appeal is the simplest of all: He made terrific movies. Some fans prefer his English classics of the '30s, like "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes," while others (including me) see his greatest period as the '50s. That's when he produced subtle and scary movies like "Vertigo" and, in 1960, the hugely original "Psycho," which spawned a number of violent spin offs he never would have approved of.

Some of Hitchcock's greatest hits are front and center in the new Warner collection. "The Wrong Man," starring Henry Fonda as a man whose life is ruined by a false accusation, is a quintessential statement on some of his favorite themes: the slipperiness of appearances and the ambiguity of guilt and innocence. "Foreign Correspondent," with Joel McRae tracking down information just before America entered World War II, contains some of Hitch's most memorable set pieces, including a plane crash that makes you feel you've fallen from the clouds along with the characters.

The reissue of "Strangers on a Train" also belongs in the highest rank, with its creepy tale of a man who thinks he's made a deal to "trade murders" with a sports star he's met by accident.

Still, an oddity of the "Signature" set is that many of its offerings are minor, at least by Hitch's lofty standard. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is one of his very rare romantic comedies, which he directed as a favor for star Carole Lombard rather than from personal interest in the project. "Suspicion" suffers from a wobbly ending, forced on Hitch because the studio wouldn't let Cary Grant's character turn out to be a killer, the way Hitch had planned.

"I Confess," about a priest who hears a deadly confession, and "Stage Fright," a murder mystery in the theater world, don't quite generate the suspense they aim for. And even Hitchcock admitted he could have phoned in his movie adaptation of the Broadway play "Dial 'M' for Murder," about a man's crafty plot to do away with his wife.

These don't show Hitchcock at his best, but they're certainly worth viewing and pondering, so the collection does a service by calling them to wide attention. His importance as an artist is attested by the huge number of books and articles still being written about him, including Mr. McGilligan's new book, which balances the somewhat sinister view of Hitch's personality set out in Donald Spoto's earlier biography, tellingly titled "The Dark Side of Genius."

He had a dark side, all right, but he had many bright sides too. And his movies continue to shine as brightly as ever.

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