Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection

Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Henry Fonda, Carole Lomabard, Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Joel McCrea. Aspect Ratio: each film presented in aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition (two are anamorphic widescreen, the rest full screen), all Dolby Digital in mono except North by Northwest: Dolby Digital Surround 5.1. Nine films/10discs. 967 mins. 2004 Warner Bros. Home Video 39814. NR except Dial M for Murder and Strangers on a Train Preview Version: PG. $99.92.

When you think of "Master of Suspense," one name leaps to mind: the legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock. Collectors have been itching to get their hands on his complete library and there is now more "Hitch" to covet: the new boxed set from Warner Home Video, Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection.

The set contains the DVD debut of seven Hitchcock classics: Dial M for Murder (1954), Foreign Correspondent (1940) Suspicion (1941), The Wrong Man (1956), Stage Fright (1950), I Confess (1953), and Mr. And Mrs. Smith (1941). In addition, the box also includes a remastered two-disc special edition of Strangers on a Train (1951, originally released on DVD in1998 as a single disc) as well as the previously released North by Northwest Special Edition (1959).

The 9 feature films in the set span a period of 19 years from 1940 to 1959, affording the movie lover highlights from a director who was continually reinventing himself through his medium. Although some of these titles have become better known as classic Hitchcock—North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder, for example—this collection also offers the viewer rare glimpses of the idiosyncratic style that developed into the artifice that Hitchcock popularized.

A good example of one of the lesser-known gems included in the set is The Wrong Man, which breaks the Hitchcock mold yet retains one of his signature themes: an ordinary man trapped in a situation beyond his doing. The black and white film, shot in a quasi-documentary fashion, is based on real life events and stars Henry Fonda, who renders a stunning performance. Fonda portrays a man whose life spins out of control as a result of being arrested and falsely accused of several robberies in his neighborhood. Although Hitchcock directed this film at the peak of his career, it wasn't a huge success, perhaps because it fell outside the typical Hitchcock formula. The film is considered by some fans to be the director's most serious, delving into territory which was grim and bleak.

By contrast, the box also includes one of Hithcock's crowned glories, North By Northwest, starring Cary Grant as a suave and charming ad exec caught in a web of intrigue when he is mistaken for an international spy. This film epitomized a glitzy, romantic, technicolor style that was evident in Hitchcock's other 50's masterpieces such as Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Although the film was done just three years after The Wrong Man, it exemplifies the diversity of a director who continually experimented with his craft.

These two films are also examples of the range in picture quality of the set, as each falls at either end of the spectrum. North by Northwest is, in a word, stunning. For a film that is 45 years old, Warner Home Video has done an exceptional job of bringing this film to life. Presented in 1:78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the digital transfer is pristine with colors popping right off the screen in their lurid technicolor magnificence. The picture looks true to what Hitchcock intended, occasionally going soft for glamour shots. The music also stands out as particularly avant-garde for that era with the reoccurring theme song anticipating the style of Phillip Glass 20 years later. The soundtrack has been freshened up with a Dolby Digital surround mix.

The Wrong Man, on the other hand, is surprisingly grainy for a film done at the height of Hitchcock's career—on a big screen the sensation of watching this one is often akin to looking through a swarm of gnats hovering in front of you. The transfer is a bit on the soft side with the overall picture being slightly dark and contrasty. The soundtrack is in mono with dialogue easy to understand and the music deliberate and suspenseful. Although the quality is not up to par technically with some of the other films, it perhaps faithfully reproduces the original intended grittiness.

One other technical ding creeps up in Dial M for Murder. This color movie, filmed for 3d presentation, becomes very uneven when rendered for 2D viewing. It's rather interesting to see how this technique effects the picture. The image is frequently acceptable but often reverts to a compromised semi-blurry state with odd blue glows around people and objects as well as a distracting shimmer.

But as a whole, the DVDs in the set are well presented and are shown in what Warners describes as original aspect ratios. With most of the films ranging from 45–60 years old, they are in surprisingly great shape, although as expected for films of this era, you see some print imperfections: scratches, grain, and varying degrees of clarity. Of the black and white films, one exceptional (and nearly flawless) transfer worth noting is Strangers on a Train.

For the Hitchcock fanatic, what really sets these discs apart are the hours of copious special features. Each film includes an in-depth making-of documentary and theatrical trailer. Dial M for Murder also includes a delightful piece detailing the history of 3D-film making. Both Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest include commentary and oodles of memorable material such as historical newsreels, stills gallery, a music only audio track, and interesting featurettes such as the endearing The Hitchcocks on Hitch. You'll hear enlightening comments from movie industry Hitchcock fans such as Directors Peter Bogdanovich and M. Night Shyamalan as well as film historians, Hitchcock colleagues, actors, and family members. The second disc included with Strangers on a Train features an alternate "preview" version of the film rediscovered in 1991.

In spite of the bare-bones packaging (a flimsy cardboard box and no booklet), this is an essential purchase for any Hitch fan, and at roughly $10 a disc, the price is a bargain. With a prolific film career spanning over fifty years, this set offers eclectic highlights from a director that has become a legend in cinematic history and will continue to entertain both fans of Hitchcock and film alike. Perhaps Hitch says it best in his trailer for North By Northwest: "I promise you nothing but entertainment . . . a vacation from all your problems!