Alfred Hitchcock is the greatest director of all time; that is a fact. No other director can equal both the critical and commercial success he had with the cultural impact and influence on other filmmakers. While he may not be my favourite director, he has a body of work so wide and varied that it is supremely difficult to pick a top ten. However, I have selected my ten favourite Hitchcock films below, and they likely represent the most famous of his works. There are still quite a few of his early films that I haven’t been able to see, but the list below is varied enough that it covers his early Hollywood period and his later peaks. I would have loved to include a couple of his early British thrillers but I feel like he improved upon those same ideas once he crossed the Atlantic. One note on the ranking – aside from the number 1 pick, the top 6 are entirely interchangeable – all equally beloved. As ever, let the debate rage on.
The 39 Steps
Hitchcock’s first effective chase thriller featuring a wrongly accused man on the run came in 1935, and stars a wonderful Robert Donet trying to clear his name. Even though we’re staring at the 80th anniversary of this film, there are enough thrills, action, comedy, and of course suspense for modern viewers to enjoy. As a child of the 80s, returning to films from before 1960 can be a daunting decision as we expect to see laughable effects, wooden stage acting, and amateur technical abilities. This can be true depending on your sensibilities, but they don’t call Hitchcock ‘The Master’ for nothing. One of the finest technical maestros of his time, his professional touch is clear on every shot, and even though technology has advanced beyond imagination in the last 80 years, storytelling has not. The pay off is high and there are a number of notable scenes, even though the twists and plot which Hannay finds himself in seem a little silly now, what with people with photographic memories hiding military secrets, along with all the misplaced identity stuff.
Welcome to Hollywood, Mr Hitchcock. His first film made in the States was a major success, winning the Best Picture and Best Cinematography Oscars, and being nominated for a host more. With a central acting trio of Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson, it is a brilliant, brooding portrayal of romance, betrayal, guilt, loss, and obsession. As strong as the cast is, Hitch’s touch is everywhere, creating a sensation of unease and stretching out some of the more haunting scenes to nerve-wracking degrees. The film would be one of several successful adaptations of a piece of Du Maurier fiction helmed by Hitchcock.
After Rebecca, Hitchcock had a string of war era films which covered the thriller, romance, and comedy genres, some of which touched upon the war effort, themes of war, or propaganda. In Lifeboat, the most overt handling with the ongoing war was given, the plot dealing with the survivors of a U-boat attack stranded in a lifeboat in the ocean. It was Hitchcock’s first effort at telling a story with a limited setting – essentially the entire film takes place on the small boat, but any problems one would expect for such a film are turned into successes. There’s certainly a lot to be said for what can be created when surrounded by barriers, self-imposed or otherwise. The crew contains a mixture of races, sexes, and countries all acting as a metaphor for the Allies versus the Axis, The film offers no easy answers, builds up the enemy in a respectable manner and shows the supposedly good guys engaging in paranoia,confusion, and indecision, eventually engaging in murderous acts. The ending, as with much of the film, is a grey area and while the evil is shown to be evil, what can be done with people like that?
Expanding brilliantly upon the technical limitation versus technical innovation ideas presented in Lifeboat, Hitchcock’s Rope looks and feels like a one-take theatre production. The action takes place entirely within the apartment of two young suave, egotistic students who plan, plot, and execute the perfect murder and try to get away with it, all shot with long takes to give the appearance of no cuts taking place. At this point in time Hitchcock was already a major force and it is a brave and shocking move to see him take such a novel and experimental approach to his latest film. Based on the play of the same name, the movie does feel like you are sitting just below the stage watching the action, but Hitchcock makes sure that your eye follows exactly what he wants it to. From a casting perspective the two villains are convincing in both their callousness, guilt, superiority, but it is Jimmy Stewart who steals the show. Stewart is unlike his usually jolly heroic self, deftly moving between a superior intellectual, detective, and av man wracked with residual guilt for possibly giving the murderers the idea. Also unusual for a Hitchcock thriller is the fact that we know who the killer is and what their motive is from the outset, and the tension comes from us watching Stewart gradually break down the case in front of the killers, and in front of the family of the departed. For a brilliant comic remake of the plot, check out the excellent British comedy Psychoville who pay homage to the film in a particularly gripping and hilarious episode.
A return to horror for Hitchcock after the success of his 1960 stabathon, The Birds remains an enigmatic and potent film which still unnerves and begs questioning. Like Psycho, The Birds follows a woman with a mysterious past stopping off on a journey and having that past, or some part of it, catch up to her. Loosely based on another Du Maurier story, we follow Tippi Hedren embarking on a playful flirtatious visit to Rod Taylor. Before long the visit becomes darker as Hedren’s character (Melanie) is viciously attacked by a seagull. As Melanie continues to become involved with Taylor’s family – mother Jessica Tandy and sister Veronica Cartwright – the bird attacks escalate in scale, frequency and ferocity. Is it all somehow linked to Melanie’s appearance in the town? The film certainly poses these questions directly, offers no answers, and continues to give critics and fans headaches decades on – feminist criticism is an area which this films lends itself to wonderfully, with the added bonus of what we know of Hitchcock himself giving extra dimensions. Hedren is wonderful in her debut, the cold blonde Hitchcock was so enamoured with, Taylor is the castrated hero, and everyone else involved do what is expected of them. The build up to any action can be excruciatingly slow, but once the fun starts it rarely lets up. The effects are outstanding, the bird work breathtaking, and there are many iconic, eerie moments – the birds on the park, the school attack, the attic attack, and the final shot are all noteworthy.
Jimmy Stewart returns again, a character similar to the one he plays in Rope, this time with the intellect largely replaced by casual paranoia, voyeurism, and boredom. Voyeurism is the name of the game here, with Hitchcock once again controlling exactly what we should and should not see, what we need to, and what we don’t. Stewart plays a photographer is who wheelchair bound in his apartment with nothing to do all day but spy on his neighbours and put up with visits from a superb Thelma Ritter and a breathtaking Grace Kelly. Waking one night after he hears a woman screaming, Stewart begins to suspect one of his neighbours of murder – the man begins acting unusually and his wife has mysteriously vanished. Bringing us along for the ride we are left to try to work out if we agree with Stewart’s assumption based on the evidence, or if we feel he is clutching at straws – both Kelly and Ritter play along too, an interested, interesting comic duo who both spur on and try to restrain Stewart’s antics. Ritter in particular, one of the finest, most underrated actresses of all time, gives a stonking performance and Kelly does not get much to do until the later stages of the film aside from being playful with Stewart. Watching the events unfold we can’t help but become wrapped up in them, make assumptions on each of the people we see, and as the film races towards its tension-filled conclusion we feel as if we are going to be caught out too. One of the best examples of how to create and build tension, and with a superb pay-off, Rear Window is an effortless masterpiece.
Dial M For Murder
This has always felt to me like a cross between Rear Window and Rope, with the blending of those plot ideas, and with a number of similar characters popping up. We have Grace Kelly giving arguably her best performance as the wrongly accused murderer, herself the target of murder trying desperately to clear her own name. Stealing the film though is John Williams, as the almost camp detective who unravels the case in a near comic fashion. Hitchcock was at his peak from the early 50s to the early 60s, with Dial M For Murder being an essentially perfect film – thrilling, entertaining, a decent winding plot well told, acted, and directed. Hitchcock’s best thrillers often verge on the convoluted, with red herrings and maguffins thrown in to confuse, confound, distract, and engage – we fall prey to these during the course of the movie even as we watch and hope that Kelly will somehow find a way out of her mess.
I’ve always said that there are only a handful of movies that truly deserve to be called the best ever – those which are entertaining for the widest possible audience, groundbreaking, influential, special – The Seven Samurai, The Godfather, A New Hope, and this are the four films I keep coming back to when anyone asks what the best film ever is. Vertigo may be the least entertaining of those four, and it isn’t my favourite Hitchcock, but it may be the most influential and the one which deserves most critical discussion and dissection. Vertigo is a maze, a marvel, a majestic movie which drags you down and spits you out in the most gut-churning and puzzling ways.
The film open with a rooftop chase scene where a cop – Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) witnesses the death of another policeman, which gives him vertigo and acrophobia. Later, we see that he has retired, and is at a loose end, living with his ex-girlfriend. When an old friend, Gavin, asks him to follow his wife Madeline whom he believes has been possessed and is a danger to herself. Scotty and Madeline begin their own tangled web until she apparently kills herself by jumping from a Church bell-tower. When a woman who looks just like Madeline turns up a few days after the tragedy, things get even more interesting.
Convoluted even by Hitchcock’s standards, the plot jumps from place to place with dizzying speed, twisting the viewer up in knots until the final act – even then when we learn the truth, Jimmy Stewart still has to figure it out for himself. Stewart plays another character apart from what he was typically known for – he is obsessed, frightened, violent, timid, while Kim Novak takes the crown as Hitchcock’s perfect mystery blond. Throw in a spellbinding Herrmann score, a fancy title sequence, a bizarre and horrific nightmare sequence, and of course the famous Vertigo effect, and we have a film which broke new technical and storytelling ground, as well as being gripping entertainment. This is The Master’s finest film, one where everything you need to know and ask about the man is covered, and one which will continue to enchant and confound until the oceans turn to ash.
Probably still Hitchcock’s most famous film, Psycho is the first modern horror film, shocking audiences in 1960 just when a new generation born out of the Second World War were beginning to ask questions about themselves and the world. Redefining horror forever, Psycho still has the power to chill seasoned horror veterans like myself over 50 years later. Starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Jennifer Leigh as Marion Crane in a famous misdirect, and Vera Miles as Lila, the film was a stark contrast to most of Hitchcock’s globe-trotting, high budget recent works. Filmed in a handful of sets, with a low-budget (the studio refused to finance the film believing the book it was based on to be too violent for film), and in black and white – all of which add to the creep factor. Hitchcock, a master of both the set and of light and shadow, clearly relishes the return to black and white, and unleashes all manner of slithering horrors on us. Before I had seen a single Hitchcock film, I was aware of Psycho – my mum always used to speak of how she had seen it in her youth and how it had terrified her. By the age of ten I knew that Hitchcock made it, I knew the name Norman Bates, I knew Herrmann’s stabbing score, and I kind of knew the plot – without having seen a single frame of the film.
When I did see it a few years later, naturally I was enthralled. There are a number of outstanding moments, the shower scene, that jump scare at the top of the stairs, the unveiling of Norma, but it is the leading trio of performances, particularly that of Perkins, along with Hitchcock’s directing as he continues to crank up the tension, which makes this memorable. The coda where we witness the interview of Bates is the main action which has led to the unending critical debate of the movie, as it opens up and makes plain all the bubbling sub-text of the previous 90 minutes, but it’s done in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it is explaining the nature of evil or the reasons behind the crimes to us. Though the film is tame by today’s standards in terms of visceral power, like any number of more ancient horror movies it retains an atmosphere and ability to unsettle more than modern horror movies do.
North By Northwest
Ah ha, my number one. In 1962 a little film called Dr No appeared on the big screen, but three years before it redefined or created the modern action movie, Hitchcock had already directed the archetype – there is quite a case for arguing that North By Northwest is the best non-Bond Bond movie ever. Hitchcock’s biggest movie, his most entertaining, his most action packed, and with one of the best scripts ever written, this is the film I urge anyone who hasn’t yet seen a Hitchcock film to watch. Although there is tension, much of that is replaced by sheer exuberance, fun, comedy, and chases.
The script takes all the elements of the wrongly accused man on the run plots which Hitchcock had previously made, and mashes them all together in one huge, mystifying, exhilarating film which encapsulates all the ludicrous points from those previous films and takes it all ten notches higher. Cary Grant is flawless as Roger Thornhill, a man kidnapped for no good reason by a group of elegant, eloquent thugs who believe him to be someone else. One brief drunken ride later and Grant finds himself being pursued by cops, criminals, spies, mothers, flirtatious women as he romps all over the US both trying to save himself, get the girl, and pretend to be the very people who each person chasing him believes he is. We have fist-fights, gun fights, train intrigue, plane chases, daring escapes, and a finale on the side of Mount Rushmore.
There is so much I love about this movie that crappy blog posts can never do it justice. It’s so energetic, rousing, witty, it makes you wish that you were wrapped up in your own spy mystery – outrunning certain death has never looked so fun. I haven’t even mentioned Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, or James Mason – each giving award worthy performances, or the music, or quoted any of the endlessly quotable dialogue…. just do yo’self a favour and watch it now. NOW!
What is your favourite Hitchcock film – is it covered above? Let us know in the comments!