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Still Held Spellbound by Hitchcock

July 02, 1998|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ah, if only Hitchcock were alive today! A number of DVD companies would probably hold him hostage until he recorded scene-specific audio commentaries for every one of his 50-plus masterpieces.

As it is, the digital formats arrived much too late. Undeterred by the fact that the master of suspense is no longer with us, special editions of his films are still being released, using practically every available survivor who's willing to speak of Hitchcock's directorial ways.

Take, for instance, the superlative special edition of "Psycho" that MCA Universal has just released on laserdisc and DVD. The transfer itself is reason enough to own this pristine version of the scariest movie ever made.

Just as in a previous restored version of "Vertigo," the movie is followed by a 90-minute documentary dissecting all aspects of "Psycho's" production, including interviews with Janet Leigh; screenwriter Joseph Stefano; assistant director Hilton A. Green; Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell; and other crew members.

Particularly fascinating is the minute description of how the infamous shower scene was conceived and put together (it took a whole week to shoot and was meticulously designed using storyboards). The edition also has a photo gallery of still frames, newsreel footage, trailers and other memorabilia.

A less spectacular but even more effective effort to enhance the Hitchcock experience is to be found on Voyager's newly released version of 1937's "The Lady Vanishes" on DVD, which includes an illuminating audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder.

The likable Eder delivers the goods in such precise, entertaining fashion that he turns serious film analysis into a fun endeavor. He possesses the right qualities for the job: He is obviously in love with his subject matter, doesn't over-intellectualize and is keen on discovering the visual and aural aspects of a film that make it stand out from others.

A stark contrast to Eder's pleasant conversation is Columbia/TriStar's special edition of "Starship Troopers" on DVD, which probably deserves an award for most embarrassing audio commentary of the year. Listening to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier bicker incessantly throughout a two-hour "dialogue" is like being invited to a home for dinner only to witness the unpleasant exchanges between two hosts who obviously can't stand each other.

Tension starts mounting very early in the game, as soon as Verhoeven declares that in reality his movie is a hidden condemnation of the fascism he's observed in American post-World War II imperialism. Taking a dutifully patriotic stance, Neumeier defends his country as best he can, although his timid comebacks cannot possibly match the panache of Verhoeven, a brilliant man who doesn't hesitate to scream to make a point.

As a movie, "Starship Troopers" is a repulsive and frigid spectacle, a cinematic comic book that will unfortunately prompt many in the audience to cheer the morbid fascism Verhoeven tried to denounce. With a few extra scenes, a brief documentary and its unbelievable audio commentary, this special edition will still be treasured by studious fans of Hollywood trash.

CURRENT RELEASES

Laserdisc:

"The Ice Storm" (1997, Image) Director Ang Lee is at the top of his game in this masterful drama that evokes the profound angst of suburban Americana. (R)

"Kagemusha" (1980, Image) Bloody red is the predominant color in this stunning Akira Kurosawa epic, one of the Japanese director's very best. Re-priced as part of the "Lasers for Less" promotion. (PG)

"Oasis . . . There and Then" (1997, Image) The cocky but tuneful Gallagher brothers perform favorites such as "Wonderwall" and "Champagne Supernova" on this 1996 concert film that includes a rendition of the Beatles' psychedelic "I Am the Walrus." (Unrated)

Digital video disc:

"Deconstructing Harry" (1997, New Line) Woody Allen's Harry reminisces about his writing life and romantic failures. In the process, he gets to kiss Elisabeth Shue. Includes annotated filmographies of the many celebrities that appear in Allen's warped cosmic vision. (R)

"As Good as It Gets" (1997, Columbia/TriStar) Listen to Jack overshadow everybody else in a quirky, uneven audio commentary on this brilliant film, including Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear and director James L. Brooks. (PG-13)

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