DVD Warning, Hitchcock-Style

Just a little warning for those of you who collect DVDs of great old movies: the new special edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which came out today, has a completely screwed-up soundtrack. In 1996 when the film was restored, the producers wanted to create a stereo soundtrack, but they only had the musical score in stereo, not the sound effects. So they ill-advisedly dubbed in sound effects from a “modern” effects library, obviously not the original effects and just as obviously not in the same acoustic as the rest of the picture (including gunshot effects that come from a gun that didn’t even exist in 1958). It doesn’t sound so bad when put into words, but believe me, when watching the film, the fake sound effects are obvious and distracting. The new special edition claims on the box that it contains the mono soundtrack, but those who have seen the set have confirmed that Universal screwed up and just included two versions of the faked stereo soundtrack.

The original soundtrack of Vertigo is only available in the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, collecting together all the Hitchcock films that Universal owns the rights to; Amazon is having a sale on the set, so you can get it for less than the price of the three Hitchcock special editions that are out today. (The special editions have a few commentaries and other features that aren’t on the older release, but nothing terribly important.)

There’s also some controversy over another classic-movie special edition released today by Universal, the set with all three versions of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The set presents all three versions in widescreen, while many fans of the film believe that it was actually intended to be shown in the old “Academy Ratio” format (like many films, it was shot so that the top and bottom of the frame didn’t have anything important in them, so they could be cut off when theatres showed the movie in widescreen). The controversy is detailed in this thread at the Criterion Forum, where Rick Schmidlin, who worked on the DVD, writes that the movie was always intended to be shown in theatres in widescreen; he’s almost certainly right, though maybe they should have had at least one of the versions in fullscreen for those who think this great movie’s compositions work better that way.

But with no soundtrack problem, a visual presentation that looks good and is true to the way the film was shown in theatres, and lots of extras, this is the most recommendable classic-movie DVD of the week, and the price is reasonable (HMV has it for $19.99). A viewing of all three versions, along with Welles’ famous memo to the studio on how he wanted the movie cut (also included in the package), once again confirms that the 1998 “restoration,” which attempted to restore the movie to Welles’ original intentions, is the worst of the three versions; most obviously, Welles was totally wrong about not wanting music over the opening shot — without Henry Mancini’s music and the opening credits, it’s a boring show-off sequence that tries in vain to create suspense before we have any idea what’s going on. Anyway, Touch of Evil isn’t only Welles’ movie; it also reflects the sensibility of its producer, Albert Zugsmith, a brilliant producer of both A movies and exploitation films whose approach is reflected in a lot of the drive-in exploitation bits in Touch of Evil. The idea that Welles’ memo counts for everything and the decisions of the producer and the studio count for nothing is the kind of well-meaning idea that has little to do with how movies are actually made.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.