THE DVD SHELF: "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Rebecca," "Notorious," "Annie Hall," "Manhattan" and More

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29 Jan 2012

Cover art for "Rebecca"

I was sitting at the computer listening to them sing "My Cup Runneth Over" on the original West End cast album of I Do! I Do! — no fooling!, I really was — when the UPS man rang up with a package containing six January Blu-ray releases from MGM. Here is a truly breathtaking clutch of films in two favorite genres. Three master thrillers, in the Hitchcockian sense of the word, and three scintillatingly intellectual New York comedies of the sparklingest vintage. My cup runneth over, indeed.

High atop the master's masterworks stands Rebecca, the 1940 classic with which Hitchcock made his American debut (and his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar). Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine played the happy couple at the story's center. George Sanders is memorable as the raffish Jack Favell, while Judith Anderson is — well, has there ever been another film performance quite like the Mrs. Danvers of Judith Anderson? I suppose there has, but even so. Anderson was a major stage star for over 50 years — she even played the title role in Hamlet, at 73 — but this performance serves as her memorial.

Cinematographer George Barnes won the film's other Oscar, for cinematography (black-and-white), and his work stands out on Blu-ray. Composer Franz Waxman did not win the Oscar for which he was nominated, but his music is highly effective. Special features include commentary from Richard Schickel; "The Making of 'Rebecca'" and "The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier; and screen tests.

Cover art for "Spellbound"

Hitchcock's 1945 offering was Spellbound, starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. This is the one where the stars are psychiatrists, or perhaps Peck is not. The whole thing hinges on repressed memories, featuring a wildly arresting dream sequence from Salvador Dali himself. This film did win the Best Score Oscar; Miklos Rozsa built his decidedly eerie score around the theremin, an electronic instrument that doesn't lend itself to easy description. Eerie, I suppose, will have to do.

Special features include commentary from film professors Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg; the documentaries "Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali" and "Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing 'Spellbound'"; and a 1948 radio-play version with Bergman and Joseph Cotton. "Spellbound" is a great favorite in some circles; it never quite grabs me — despite the combination of director, stars, and screenwriter Ben Hecht — but don't let that dissuade you.

Cover art for "Notorious"

Hitchcock followed "Spellbound" with the 1946 Notorious, which unlike its predecessor ranks high on my personal Hitchcock list. The key to the wine cellar that pays such an important part in the story . . . the wine bottles, and what is hidden inside them . . . the look of abject terror on the face of Claude Rains when he helps Ingrid Bergman escape in the final sequence. There are a half-dozen Hitchcocks that I watch frequently, with the story peaks grabbing me time after time. "Notorious" is one of them.

This is your typical Hitchcockian spy thriller, with Cary Grant in pursuit of Bergman while Rains — leader of a ring of Nazi refugees in Brazil — looks on. It is also high entertainment of the finger-nail biting variety. It's hard to call Grant's performance good; he is playing Cary Grant, after all, and he is just as effective and enjoyable as he is in Hitch's "Suspicion" and "North by Northwest." Rains, of "Casablanca" and "Now, Voyager," gives a nuanced, sympathetic performance as the villain. They are all, however, wiped off the screen by Leopoldine Konstantin as Rains' mother, Madame Sebastian. Konstantin is as astonishing here as, well, Judith Anderson in "Rebecca." A 60-year-old Austrian refugee — she appeared in the original 1906 production of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening in Berlin — this was Konstantin's only American film appearance. Memorable, scarily so.

Special features include commentary by film professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper; the documentaries "The Ultimate Romance: The Making of 'Notorious'" and "Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster"; a restoration comparison; and yet another 1948 radio version starring Bergman and Joseph Cotton.

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