TO CATCH A THIEF (1955): “I bet you told her all your trees were Sequoias.”

TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) – Paramount – ★★★★

Color – 106 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (John Robie), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (H. H. Hughson), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard).

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the novel by David Dodge

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Lyn Murray

Costumes by Edith Head

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   Alfred Hitchcock entered 1955 riding a hot streak, with the back-to-back smash hits Dial M For Murder and Rear Window, and that streak would continue with To Catch A Thief.    The movie opens with one of Hitchcock’s typical vignettes.  A black cat creeps on a rooftop.  Cut to a woman screaming; her jewels have been stolen.  Cut to the same black cat, slinking by a windowsill.  Then another woman screaming.  Finally we cut to a black cat sleeping comfortably on Cary Grant’s sofa, as he reads a newspaper article about a jewel thief named “the cat”.   A simple but effective story set up.

 To Catch A Thief is often cited as Hitchcock lite:  a good-looking movie that offers little of the subtext or dark undercurrents to be found in many of his best movies.  Actually, all of Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on display here, and while the tone is light, the movie is always entertaining, and pleasing to the palate.

First of all, we have the innocent man falsely accused, in the form of Cary Grant’s John Robie:  a man who was once a jewel thief, but who now just wishes to live quietly in his villa near the French Riviera (don’t we all?)  But now, someone has begun stealing jewels, using his methods, and the police want to arrest him.  There is a Hitchcock double chase (the innocent man chasing after the real criminal, while himself being chased by the police), but the difference between this movie and the many others with this theme (such as The 39 Steps and North by Northwest)  is that the action is more static here.  Also,  the hero is suspected of being merely a thief, not a murderer, as is usually the case.  One never truly feels like Grant is in any real danger.

Next we have the icy maiden as leading lady.  Grace Kelly’s character has a cool demeanor, but inside she is about to bubble over.   She is Frances Stevens, travelling in Europe with her rich mother, whose jewels are a target for the thief.  Observe the transformation of Kelly’s character as the movie progresses, and she becomes more overtly sexual.  Interestingly she is also turned on by the thought of Cary Grant’s character being a thief.  She wants him to be a thief; as a matter of fact, she is willing to help him steal.   This was Kelly’s third consecutive film for Hitchcock as his leading lady; she had clearly become a favorite of his, and it’s easy to see why.

And then there is the domineering mother, another recurring element in several Hitchcock films.  Grace Kelly’s mother is perfectly played by Jessie Royce Landis, who would later play Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest.  Her level head and straight talk make her a polar opposite of her daughter, and provide many of the best moments in the film.

And subtle (or not so subtle) sexual humor?   This film contains more double entendres than any film Hitchcock ever made.  Special acknowledgment goes to John Michael Hayes, who crafted a screenplay that is full of more quotable lines than five average movies.  His dialogue is witty, flirty, breezy, and never boring.

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And a great climax, occuring in a high place?  John Robie unmasks the real cat thief, and clears his name, on the rooftop of a French villa, which has just hosted a lavish costume party.  The entire party sequence is a lovely set piece, with gorgeous costumes designed by Edith Head (of course) who once said this was her favorite movie to work on.

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Above you can see the gorgeous set from the film’s finale,  on a sound stage at Paramount.

Some people have delved deeper into this movie, examining themes of guilt and trust, but since Hitchcock himself said the movie was not meant to be taken seriously, we will take him at his word.   But just because it is not serious does not mean it is not worth watching.  It is expertly made, gorgeously shot, well acted, with a memorable and funny screenplay.

Performances:  As is usually the case in Hitchcock movies, some of the most interesting performances are in the supporting cast.  Of course the two leads are great, as I’ve already mentioned.  But equally great is John Williams as insurance man H.H. Hughson.  And Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene she is in.   Her part is very well written, but she elevates the character beyond the written word.  And Brigitte Auber, as the second love interest for Cary Grant, is quite good as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on a novel by David Dodge.   Considering it is over 60 years old, the novel reads very well today.  It’s tone is light, and it breezes along, much like the movie.  The main plot points were all transferred from the book directly to the movie.  There are some minor changes.  In the novel, Robie actually dons a physical disguise after fleeing from the police at his villa, so they will not recognize him.  Robie also has a friend named Paul, a character that is eliminated from the movie altogether.  This friend falls in love with Danielle, the jewel thief, which complicates things at the ending.  Although screenwriter John Michael Hayes kept much of the plot, he did bring a lot of original dialogue to the movie.  Dialogue was Hayes’ specialty, and this screenplay features many gems.   As mentioned before, he packs the screenplay with double entendres;  it’s amazing that they all passed muster with the censors.

Academy awards:  Robert Burks won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.  The movie was also nominated in the Best Costume and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration categories.

Robert Burks, cameraman:  Rather than a full scene deconstruction, we are going to take a look at one sequence in the movie, with particular attention paid to Robert Burks Oscar-winning cinematography.  Burks was the director of photography on 12 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.  In addition to this movie, he shot Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and 8 other titles.  One could argue that he was the most important technical collaborator of Hitchcock’s career.

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This is the scene where Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) attempts to seduce John Robie (Cary Grant).  She is attempting to lure him with both her body and the necklace she is wearing.   In the shot above, Kelly’s face is in the shadows, forcing Robie’s (and the viewer’s) attention to the objects of desire. The green light on the curtains is a great touch as well.

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The two are drawn closer together, with Grace Kelly’s character being the aggressor, while Cary Grant’s Robie is on the defensive.  Look at the above shot.  First, the two characters frame the window.   Grant stands rigid, while Grace Kelly is relaxed, seductive.  The fireworks are on display behind them.  Next observe the color composition.  Out the window is a deep blue.  The streak of green runs through the center of the frame, with the actors standing just inside it.  You can see that Grace Kelly’s hair appears green.  The light has almost a pinkish tint on the right, and there are deep shadows in the top left of frame, and bottom right.

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The characters are slowly drawn together, then they part.  Grace Kelly sits down on the couch, and now we are seeing her from Grant’s point of view; she is bathed in a brighter, natural light, finally showcasing her absolutely breathtaking face.

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Back to a two-shot as Grant joins her on the couch.  Now they are surrounded again by that ethereal green light as they draw into a kiss and recline on the sofa.tocatchathief6

Next, a cut to the fireworks out the window.  This may be the on-screen birth of the now-trite fireworks as sex metaphor.

 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about the 9:38 mark of this movie.  It is one of the most self-aware cameos of his career.  Cary Grant boards a bus outside his villa, and takes a seat in the very back.  On the seat to his right sits a birdcage with some birds in it.  He then looks to his left, and the camera pans over to show Hitchcock sitting right next to him, stoically looking ahead.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had appeared in Suspicion and Notorious, and would later appear in North by Northwest.  Grace Kelly had earlier starred in Dial M For Murder and Rear Window.  Jessie Royce Landis would appear with Cary Grant again (as his mother!) in North by Northwest.  The inimitable John Williams had already been in The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder.  Lewis Charles (man with milk saucer in Bertanis) would later appear in Topaz.  Steven Geray had earlier appeared in Spellbound.  Gladys Holland (woman at roulette table), Edward Manouk (kitchen helper), Louis Mercier (croupier) and Donald Lawton (police detective) would show up briefly in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake.  Barry Norton had earlier had a bit part in Strangers on a Train, and Loulette Sablon had a bit part in Foreign Correspondent.  And lets not forget Bess Flowers, the most prolific extra in Hollywood history, who was an extra in this and seven other Hitchcock movies.

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams
Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this movie, over the years.  He did call it “a lightweight story” and say “it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.”

 Definitive edition:  Paramount released this movie on blu ray in 2012.  This print of the movie is breathtaking.  Edith Head’s beautiful costumes, and Robert Burks’ Oscar-winning cinematography are on fine display.  The blu ray contains a dry-but-informative commentary track by Drew Casper, and numerous featurettes:  A Night With the Hitchcocks, Film Censorship in Hollywood, Writing and Casting, The Making of, Behind the Gates, Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch A Thief, Edith Head:  The Paramount years, and Interactive Travelogue.  Also included are photo galleries and the original theatrical trailer.  It’s a shame Paramount did not port over the commentary track from the earlier DVD release, featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau.  Their lighter tone was more suited to this movie than Drew Casper’s scholarly dissertation.

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NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959): “That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.”

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – MGM – Rating: ★★★★★

Color – 136 mins. – 1.66:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Philip VanDamm), Martin Landau (Leonard),  Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G Carroll (The Professor), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Edward Binns (Captain Junket).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, Associate Producer Herbert Coleman

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Editor:  George Tomasini

Original musical score:  Bernard Herrmann

Production Design:  Robert Boyle

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

Alfred Hitchcock’s film output during his first two decades in America is astonishing, especially by today’s standards.  Between 1940 and 1959, Hitchcock directed 23 feature-length films, an average of one film every 11 months.  If that is not impressive enough, during this same time period he still found time to direct 14 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, 2 TV shows for other anthology programs, and several short propaganda pieces during World War II.  He also recorded his personal opening and closing remarks for 167 episodes of his television program, as well as doing extensive pre-production on several film projects that never came to fruition.   Whew!   I’m exhausted just listing his accomplishments.

So at any given time during this period, it was not uncommon for Hitch to be working on up to three different projects simultaneously.  In the summer of 1956, he was going on a promotional tour for The Wrong Man, which he had just finished filming.  His next planned film was to be Flamingo Feather, but this movie was scrapped after already being announced in the trades as a Hitchcock feature to star James Stewart.   This meant that Vertigo, which was in the screenwriting phase, was moved up to be Hitch’s next feature.  And what would follow Vertigo?

MGM was in turmoil at this time.  At one time Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, MGM had just fired Dore Schary as studio head and stockholders were in a panic.  MGM began courting Hitchcock; if the studio could announce a future Hitchcock film, shareholders would be pacified.  So Hitchcock was hired to direct The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM upon completion of Vertigo at Paramount.

Hitchcock hired Ernest Lehman to write a screenplay for Mary Deare, but Lehman was struggling with the adaptation.  He wanted to quit the project, but Hitchcock told him they would just shelve that screenplay and create something original together.  And that original screenplay, which was born out of Hitchcock’s desire to stage a chase scene atop Mt. Rushmore, would become North by Northwest.  

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An image from the iconic Saul Bass title sequence.

North by Northwest begins with a burst of kinetic energy;  Saul Bass’ title sequence, a series of intersecting diagonal lines which become the side of a Madison Avenue skyscraper, meld with Bernard Herrmann’s driving music.  The skyscraper image is followed by a montage of people in motion, and the title sequence ends with Hitchcock himself missing a bus.  The message is clear;  the viewer had better keep up, or be left behind.  When we first see Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill he is stepping out of an elevator, walking and talking.  This film begins as if we are joining a movie already in progress.  There is no slow build, no exposition to set the scene;  that will come later.  Just a few short minutes into the movie Thornhill (Grant) has been kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity.  A group of spies have mistaken him for George Kaplan, a government agent.   The ringleader of the spies is Philip VanDamm, played by the impeccable James Mason.   Mason questions Roger Thornhill at a large Long Island estate, then has his henchmen (led by a young Martin Landau in the role of Leonard) get him drunk and put him behind the wheel of a car, planning to drive the car off of a cliff.

 

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Cary Grant is interrogated by Martin Landau and an amused James Mason.

Roger Thornhill manages to escape his would-be assassins and ends up in the hands of the police.  We soon meet Roger’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis.   Landis had played Grace Kelly’s mother in the Hitchcock film To Catch A Thief, and she and Cary Grant established a great rapport in that movie, so it was natural to pair them together again.   (Many sources have cited that Landis does a great job in this movie, despite the fact that the actress is too young to be Grant’s mother.   Many people have even said they are the same age, or that Landis is younger than Grant.  Let’s put this spurious tale to rest now.  Jessie Royce Landis was born on November 25, 1896, while Grant was born on January 18, 1904.  So while it is true that Landis is not old enough to be Grant’s biological mother, she is over seven years older).

Thornhill begins a search for the man he was mistaken for, George Kaplan, believing that he will hold the answers to this mystery, and his mother accompanies him as he begins his search.  Soon enough the spies are hot on his tail again, and he is framed for a murder.  Now public enemy number one, he sneaks aboard the 20th Century Limited train en route to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint.  It is interesting to note that Saint, the leading lady, does not make her entrance until the 44th minute of the film.  And once she makes an appearance, Jessie Royce Landis does not appear in the film anymore, nor is she referenced.   So Cary Grant’s character is under the thumb of his mother in the beginning section, and that female control transfers to Eva Marie Saint for the duration of the film.

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Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant are essentially having sex with their clothes on; this is about as sexually charged a scene as Hitchcock ever shot.

This next section of the movie, as Grant and Saint converse in the train’s dining car, then later rendezvous in Saint’s sleeping compartment, are some of the most sexually charged scenes in 1950’s cinema.  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s dialogue walks a subtle line, but there is nothing subtle in the way that Eva Marie Saint looks at Cary Grant; it is a bold and brazen seduction.  By the end of the train sequence, the audience knows a few things that Roger Thornhill does not.  Hitchcock typically liked to give the viewer information that the protagonist lacks.  So by this point the viewer knows that George Kaplan does not exist, and that Eve Kendall is somehow associated with James Mason and the spies.  Things are looking rather hopeless for Roger Thornhill.

Eve Kendall sends Thornhill to a supposed meeting with Kaplan on a deserted Indiana highway, where he faces another assassination attempt.  The crop duster sequence is not only one of Hitchcock’s greatest triumphs, but one of the most memorable scenes in film history.  Couldn’t these spies think of less elaborate ways to kill someone?  It certainly seems like a lot of trouble to go to, sending a man to the middle of nowhere, so he can be gunned down by a crop dusting plane.  Of course, within the confines of the movie, the viewer does not question the logic of the scene, in part because of the movie’s frenetic pace.  Every scene seems a logical follow up to the preceding scene.  ( I will do a deconstruction of the crop duster sequence in my next blog entry.)

download (1)This sequence marks a pivotal change in the movie; up to now Roger Thornhill has been a victim of circumstances beyond his control.   He has been emasculated and manipulated like a pawn.  He does not yet understand how all the pieces fit together, but he does know that he can only rely on himself if he wishes to survive.  This sets up another fantastic sequence which takes place in a Chicago auction hall, where Roger Thornhill confronts Eve Kendall, VanDamm, and Leonard.    VanDamm is standing behind Eve, with a hand on her shoulder, as if he is clutching a possession.  At one point in conversation, VanDamm asks Eve if Thornhill was in her hotel room, to which Thornhill replies “Sure, isn’t everyone?”  Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of VanDamm slowly removing his hand from Eve, which is as telling as any dialogue could be.  Once again it seems that Roger Thornhill will be captured and killed, and once again he uses his wits to escape.

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Cary Grant’s character is beginning to assert himself, and now it is Eva Marie Saint who feels like a pawn as the two men tower over her, discussing her as if she were an object.

 

Finally Roger Thornhill meets an American intelligence officer known as the Professor, (Leo G. Carroll), who fills in the blanks for Thornhill.  He now realizes that Eve is working for the Americans, and he realizes that he has put her at risk.  This sets up the final sequence of events at Mount Rushmore, which involves much duplicity amongst the leading characters, until finally Thornhill and Grant are fleeing for their lives on the monument itself.  Hitchcock was not allowed to film on the monument, so this sequence was made with some gorgeous process shots that combine matte painting with a scale model of the Rushmore faces that was build at MGM.  The film ends as it began, in motion, and finally the audience can catch its collective breath.

Themes:  One of the reasons that North by Northwest is such an iconic film is because it contains all of Hitchcock’s major themes.  First and foremost is the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, who is trying to find the real conspirators while staying one step ahead of the police.   He had already filmed variations of this theme several times (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur), and while those are all good films, this movie can be seen as the culmination of his life’s work.  Other prominent Hitchcock themes present in this movie include the icy blonde leading lady;  the domineering mother; and the debonair gentleman antagonist.   There are a handful of Hitchcock films that feature a hint of homosexuality, and there is a slight element of that here in Martin Landau’s character Leonard.  Late in the film he utters the line “Call it my woman’s intuition.”  And James Mason’s character accuses him of being jealous.  There is certainly a suggestion here that Leonard’s feelings for his boss went beyond the professional.

Hitchcock and the censors:  Alfred Hitchcock delighted in sneaking sexual subtext past the film censors, and he succeeded many times in his career.  There is one line of dialogue in this movie that the censors would not approve, however.  When Eva Marie Saint is talking to Cary Grant in the dining car, the original line of dialogue was “I never make love on an empty stomach.”  This was unacceptable to the censors, so the line was looped to say “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”  If you watch Eva Marie’s lips, you can clearly see the dialogue does not sync up.  It doesn’t really matter what she said, though, because the tone of her voice, the way she looks at Cary Grant, the way she pulls his hand towards her to light her cigarette, are as blatantly sexual as a major movie scene could be shot at the time.

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Hitchcock also delighted in the final shot of the movie, which did not appear in the screenplay;  it was Hitch’s own invention.  As Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the upper berth bed on the train, Hitchcock cuts outside, to a shot of a train entering a tunnel, which was a not-too-subtle mimicking of the act of sexual penetration.  Hitchcock was very proud of this shot, telling the story many times.

Hitchcock and final cut:  At two hours and sixteen minutes, this is the longest film of Hitchcock’s entire career.  But it certainly doesn’t seem like it;  the fast pace, the constant shift in location, and the witty dialogue ensure that the movie never lags.  A couple of Hitchcock’s later pictures certainly feel longer (I’m talking about you, Torn Curtain and Topaz).   But MGM had reservations about the movie’s length at the time.  They wanted him to cut one sequence in particular:  when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet in the woods after she has pretended to kill him, and they say their goodbyes.  Hitchcock believed the scene was necessary, and after getting reassurances from his lawyer that the “final cut” clause of his contract was ironclad, he respecfully told the studio that he would not cut a frame.  In the end, North by Northwest was the highest-grossing film of Hitchcock’s career to date, a massive hit with critics and audiences.  This is one time where the master was right to stand his ground.

Performance:  Every single performance in this film is spot-on, from the leads to the minor supporting characters.  Cary Grant would remain very proud of this film until he died, and justifiably so.  James Mason was so good as the bad guy, it has been suggested that his character was the prototype for a generation of James Bond villians to follow. Eva Marie Saint showed as much range as any female lead in the Hitchcock canon.

Academy awards:  North by Northwest received three Oscar nominations:  best original screenplay, Ernest Lehman;  best film editing, George Tomasini; and best Art Direction – Color.   It was another MGM picture that was the big winner at the 1960 Academy Awards – Ben-Hur.  That film would dominate the night, winning 11 total Oscars.  While it is hard to argue with Ben-Hur  in the editing category, I honestly feel like North by Northwest got robbed in the Color Art Direction category.  The sets in this movie are simply sublime, to the extent that they influenced many films that followed.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had also appeared in Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch A Thief.  Jessie Royce Landis had worked with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.  Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock movies than any other actor, including Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, and Strangers on a Train.  Malcolm Atterbury would later appear in The Birds.  Sara Berner, Len Hendry and Jesslyn Fax had been in Rear Window.  Tommy Farrell and Robert Williams were in Strangers on a Train.   Kenner G. Kemp had appeared in The Paradine Case, and would later be in Marnie.  Doreen Lang was also in The Wrong Man and The Birds.  Alexander Lockwood was in Saboteur and Family Plot.  Frank Marlow had also been in Saboteur and Notorious.  Howard Negley and Frank Wilcox were also in Notorious.  Jeffrey Sayre was also an extra in Saboteur, Notorious, and Vertigo.  Bert Stevens was in The Paradine Case and Marnie.  Harry Strang and Dale Van Sickel were in Saboteur. 

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo in this movie is impossible to miss, coming at the end of the title sequence.  At about the 2:09 mark, just as his director’s credit disappears from the screen, Hitchcock attempts to board a bus, which closes the door in his face and pulls away without him.

What the actors said:  Eva Marie Saint said that Hitchcock only gave her three simple instructions for her character:  “Lower my voice; don’t use my hands; and look directly at Cary Grant in my scenes with him, look right into his eyes.  From that, I conjured up in my mind the kind of lady he saw this woman as.”

Cary Grant, speaking of his relationship with Hitchcock, said that “Hitch and I had a rapport and understanding deeper than words.”

James Mason admitted that he enjoyed Hitchcock’s movies and found him a charming man, but admitted that he thought Hitch as a director used actors like “animated props.”

What Hitch said:  I’ll include some in-depth comments from Hitchcock in my next entry, about the crop-duster sequence.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers blu-ray, released in 2009, is the best version available.  First of all, the VistaVision transfer is breathtaking.   This may be the best looking of all of Hitchcock’s films on blu-ray.  The soundtrack is high quality as well.  The blu-ray includes a feature-length (1 hr. 27 min.) documentary about the leading man called Cary Grant:  A Class Apart, as well as three other documentaries:  The Master’s Touch:  Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57 mins.), Destination Hitchcock:  The Making of North by Northwest (39 mins.) and North by Northwest:  One For the Ages (25 mins.)   Also included is a commentary track with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers, one hosted by Hitchcock, and a TV spot.