The 10 Best Hitchcock Filmsby David Abrams
Apr 23, 2000
The first time I remember seeing anything directed by Alfred Hitchcock was in 1976. I was barely a teenager and just ready to enter the big, scary world of adults.
I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of my living room. It was late in the evening. I was wearing a “Spirit of ’76” bicentennial T-shirt. The lights were low.
I wasn’t even watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie. No, my dear readers, I was watching a documentary called Life Goes to the Movies, a compilation of classic scenes from some of the best movies ever made. This was no short-attention-span, whirlwind clipfest like they show at the Academy Awards; this was a loving tribute to the cinema which played entire scenes from some of the great ones like Gone With the Wind and Dr. Zhivago.
Eliza Doolittle was singing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Then it happened.
A man, a blonde-haired woman, a grandmother and a little girl my age were sitting in their cozy living room when birds suddenly started pouring into the room through the fireplace. The people screamed, the birds screeched. There was mass confusion. The sparrows kept invading the home like flutter-winged smoke, pecking at the humans, taking small nips of flesh with their beaks.
Omigod. My bicentennial T-shirt was thoroughly soaked when that two minutes was up.
It was, of course, The Birds and it was my first taste of that macabre master of movies, Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Since that day 24 years ago, I have seen nearly every film he directed (the only exception to date is the universally panned Jamaica Inn and his early silent movies [though I’ve recently purchased some of them on DVD…watch for future epinions]). In short, I love Hitch flicks with every drop of blood in my veins.
Hitchcock was the master of control when he sat in the director’s chair. Every scene, every shot was carefully storyboarded long before the cameras started rolling. It’s as if he’d already played the movie on a tiny projector in his mind—the actual filming was a bothersome bore, a tedious process. To say he was brilliant is an understatement. To say he was the greatest director of the 20th century is arguable…but I’ll say it nonetheless: he stood at the top of the mountain while all the rest of Hollywood’s directors were still tangled in their climbing ropes.
This is not to say there aren’t some bad Hitchcock movies out there (The Paradine Case and Marnie spring to mind), but when you look at how many movies he directed (37 major sound features and nearly 20 silents), he is pound-for-pound, blood-drop-for-blood-drop unequaled by anyone else.
Speaking of blood, there’s surprisingly little of it in his films. The most notorious instance of blood-letting, in Psycho, looks for all the world like chocolate syrup…which, of course, it is. No, Hitchcock’s preferred method of murder was strangulation, a slow process which turned audiences’ nerves into something resembling overstretched rubber bands.
Hitchcock didn’t resort to gore, he almost never had anyone jump out from the shadows and cry “boo!,” and he never ever dressed his villains in hockey masks or gave them razor blades for fingernails. He used character and good old-fashioned rising tension to make us chew our fingernails to the quick. I doubt he’d have a very high opinion of Jason, Freddy and gang. “Too bloody much blood,” he’d probably sniff.
By now it should be obvious that I love All Things Hitchcock (to the point that I once read all the “Three Investigators” mystery books and subscribed to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine—neither of which he had anything to do with, apart from lending them his name and image).
Recently, I was encouraged by a couple of Epinions members (thanks kboo and ifif1938!) to compile a list of my Top Ten Hitchcock Movies.
Egad! What a chore! How to pick the best ones from a brilliant career? It was nearly an insurmountable task. However, I surmounted.
Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. I know you’re screaming for the List.
Here, then, are my favorite Hitch flicks. They are in no particular order and I couldn’t bring myself to place one above the other (though, if a gun was placed to my head, North by Northwest would probably slightly edge out the competition). With each film, I’ve included a quote from Hitchcock himself (taken from Francois Truffaut’s excellent book of interviews).
1. The 39 Steps (1935)
Hitchcock had spent nearly ten years toiling in the British studio system, working first as a set designer, then moving his way up to the director’s chair. He made his mark with a couple of decent suspense films (The Lodger and Murder), then turned out his first trademark nail-biter, The Man Who Knew Too Much. But then, one year later, he really hit his stride with The 39 Steps. It’s a classic tale of mistaken identity, featuring a breathtaking chase across the foggy moors while the falsely accused hero is handcuffed to a girl he doesn’t even know. It builds to a crescendo in a symphony hall where a man named Mr. Memory holds in his head the key to the movie’s central question: “What are the 39 Steps?” I guarantee you’ll be on the edge of your seat.
“What I like in The 39 Steps are the swift transitions…The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement…You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”
2. Rebecca (1940)
Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie. Legendary mogul David O. Selznick wooed Hitch across the Atlantic after the success of films like The 39 Steps and Sabotage. The rotund director arrived in Tinseltown expecting to make a movie about the Titanic (but then Selznick told him he’d have to wait another 58 years for a kid named DiCaprio to come of age). Instead, his first project turned out to be a gothic romance—not his usual bag of tricks. Yet Hitchcock managed to turn Daphne du Maurier’s novel into the Best Picture of the Year (according to Oscar). It features great performances by Laurence Olivier (as the emotionally tortured Max De Winter), Joan Fontaine (as the never-named “Second Mrs. De Winter”) and Judith Anderson (as one of the great screen villainesses, Mrs. Danvers). Oh yeah, and there’s the oh-so-suave-and-dry-witted George Sanders who very nearly steals the show.
“It has stood up quite well over the years. I don’t know why.”
3. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
An American reporter gets mixed up with Nazis vying for the secrets of an Allied treaty. It’s pure flag-waving rah-rah as the war clouds gathered over Europe and the hero’s passionate speech at the conclusion sounds too much like a Senate floor debate, but there are so many classic Hitchcock touches in here that I never fail to get caught up in it every time. There’s the windmill scene where hero Joel McRae barely escapes detection by the bad guys; there’s the assassination scene where the murderer gets away in a crowd full of umbrellas; and there’s a frightening plane crash at sea. Oh yeah, and there’s George Sanders—playing a character named Scott Ffolliottt (“two fs, two ls, two ts”). What more could a movie lover ask for?
“The picture was pure fantasy and, as you know, in my fantasies, plausibility is not allowed to rear its ugly head.”
4. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
A screwball comedy. “What,” you ask, “is this doing on here?” Mr. and Mrs. Smith proved that Hitchcock could do anything well. Like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, Hitch made a wildly funny motion picture about a divorced couple who just can’t seem to get rid of each other. Starring Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, it’s a sheer delight from start to finish. I watch this one every time I want to plaster a smile on my face. This is probably the least-seen of all Hitchcock’s major features and that’s a shame because it’s really one of his best, even if it is bloodless.
“That picture was done as a friendly gesture to Carole Lombard…She asked whether I’d do a picture with her. In a weak moment, I accepted.”
5. Notorious (1946)
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Sigh. Apart from the perfect casting, this is very nearly the perfect Hitchcock movie. Suspense, romance and humor blend perfectly in the tale about agents, double agents and those nasty Nazis. Some of my favorite scenes in Notorious include the discovery of uranium in the wine bottles, the long tracking shot in a crowded ballroom that goes all the way down to the key clenched in Bergman’s hand and, of course, that loooong kiss between Cary and Ingrid.
“Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.”
6. Rear Window (1954)
This was one of Hitchcock’s best-structured films in terms of plot and theme. James Stewart, a photojournalist who’s cooped up with a broken leg in his apartment, starts to spy on his neighbors across the way. His innocent, playful musings suddenly take on a suspicious edge when he thinks he sees a murder in one of the apartments. Or does he? We’re never quite positive until the shattering finale. Hitchcock really tapped a common nerve with this one. Who among us could turn away from the sexual aerobics of Miss Torso or the pathetic candlelight dinners of Miss Lonelyheart?
“I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well-charged.”
7. Vertigo (1958)
One of Hitchcock’s most personal films, this one probed deep into the director’s sexual psyche. It’s all about obsession and control and the double life femme fatales lead. James Stewart plays a former San Francisco cop who’s afraid of heights. He takes on a case from a friend who wants him to shadow his wife (Kim Novak) who might just be a suicidal neurotic. Gradually, Stewart falls in love with the woman he’s tailing. I’ll stop there because there are some terrific plot twists I don’t want to spoil. This is without a doubt Hitchcock’s most complex movie; as such, it rewards repeat viewings. Stewart and Novak are terrific in their roles, as is Barbara Bel Geddes (who, as Stewart’s best friend, always seems to me to be so much more sexy than the cool blonde Novak).
“Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with. You know, I don’t like to argue with a performer on the set; there’s no reason to bring the electricians in on our troubles. I went to Kim Novak’s dressing room and told her about the dresses and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen.”
8. North by Northwest (1959)
Guaranteed, the most fun you can have with your clothes on at a Hitchcock movie. Cary Grant plays a New York businessman who’s mistaken for a government agent by bad guys. Only trouble is, that government agent doesn’t really exist—he was a shadow figure created by the CIA to catch the enemy spies. But now that Cary’s been identified as the non-person, well, they’ll just have to keep playing the game. Meanwhile, he falls for Eva Marie Saint who might be one of the spies or she might be a double agent. Cary pursues her across the Midwest while the spies pursue him pursuing her. Confused? Don’t worry, your head will be spinning by the time you get to the climax on top of Mount Rushmore. The movie clips along at a gallop, never stopping to take a breath. Along the way, there’s so much good humor (courtesy of Mr. Grant) and so much white-knuckle terror (courtesy of Mr. Hitchcock and a certain crop duster) that the details don’t matter.
“During the first part, all sorts of things happen to the hero with such bewildering rapidity that he doesn’t know what it’s all about. Cary Grant came up to me and said, ‘It’s a terrible script. We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it.’”
9. Psycho (1960)
The movie that killed the shower industry. There’s no doubt that if you were to go up to ten people on the street and say the word “Hitchcock,” eight of them would make a sound resembling screeching violins while slashing their fist through the air. The infamous shower scene lasts only forty-five seconds, but contains more than 90 edits. They are probably the most analyzed forty-five seconds of film history. And rightly so. In my book, however, there are two scarier moments which come later in the movie. I first saw this movie long after it came out and the shower scene was a national film icon. I can only imagine what audiences must have thought when they sat down to watch it in 1960. Most of the performances are pretty bland except, of course, for Anthony Perkins. He is Norman Bates. Why wasn’t he even nominated for an Oscar?
“My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audience, and I consider that very important. I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream.”
10. The Birds (1963)
The movie that killed the pet canary industry. As in most of his later films, the acting is dull as cardboard (Hitchcock was never an actor’s director, but he really seemed to lose his touch as he got older). The thing that makes The Birds so completely gut-wrenching is the creeping realization that there’s something terribly wrong with Nature. Notice how Hitchcock builds suspense slowly—the crows gather one by one on the playground equipment behind Tippi Hedren as she sits on a bench—nothing leaps out and goes “boo!” There’s a lot of excruciating silence in The Birds, a silence that’s broken not by a jarring music soundtrack but by the menacing flutter of bird wings.
“For the final scene, in which Rod Taylor opens the door of the house for the first time and finds the birds assembled there, as far as the eye can see, I asked for a silence, but not just any kind of silence. I wanted an electronic silence, a sort of monotonous low hum…It was a strange, artificial sound, which in the language of the birds might be saying, ‘We’re not ready to attack you yet, but we’re getting ready. We’re like an engine that’s purring and we may start off at any moment.’ All of this was suggested by a sound that’s so low that you can’t be sure whether you’re actually hearing it or only imagining it.”
I can’t end this list without adding one more special movie. Over the years, in the sincerest form of flattery, other directors have imitated Hitchcock. As they say, “Often imitated, never duplicated.” Then there’s Mel Brooks. If you think you’ve seen every Hitchcock film out there, then you need to check out High Anxiety, Brooks’ spoof of about a dozen Hitchcock films. It’s grand silliness—especially the bellboy who stabs Mel with a rolled-up newspaper (“Psycho”) and the pigeons who dive-bomb him with droppings (“The Birds”).