December 20, 2012
Years ago I met the son of an English greengrocer: a corpulent, droll fellow known for murder and mayhem. I was probably vaguely aware of him through television, although his long-running show was not in reruns in the limited broadcast television markets of my youth. But I first really knew of him because he lent his name (for a fee, naturally) to a monthly mystery magazine and he had bookending cameos in The Three Investigators mysteries. But then, late one night on the television, I saw Psycho. After that I became fascinated, perhaps morbidly so, by Alfred Hitchcock.
So I was delighted to go see the new movie Hitchcock with Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Sir Alfred. While it was modestly entertaining, it was anything but suspenseful. I wouldn’t recommend the movie to folks who are not already fans of Hitch. It would be far more entertaining to see Psycho, or almost any Hitchcock film, on the big screen. I’ve seen all of his films, most of them multiple times, but Psycho does stand out for one reason in particular. I was young enough to approximate the reaction of cinema audiences in 1960 to first seeing Psycho: it shocked me. The slow, mundane, somewhat dreadful pace let me know something was coming, but I was still quite unprepared for what could happen when a truly great director, who was always a masterful manipulator, made a horror film.
Is Psycho my favorite Hitchcock film? Hardly. That honor goes to Vertigo, underappreciated at the time but now ranking at the top of Sight & Sound’s top movies of all time. So allow me to urge you to go rent something great from the Master of Suspense. Here’s my top ten Hitchcock films in reverse chronological order, but I caution you that some linked clips are SPOILERS for the films in question. If you don’t want to spoil some major plot points, watch the entire movies from start to finish!
The most graphically violent Hitchcock film, leavened with British humor. I love the British inspector, tortured by his wife’s cooking. It is a far more modern film than Psycho, although only made a dozen years later.
The Birds (1963)
While hardly my favorite Hitchcock film (I actually like the Daphne du Maurier short story it was based on better), the ending is properly unsettling, the gas station sequence is great, and the suspense as the crows accumulate on the playground is intense.
Great performances by Tony Perkins and Janet Leigh in this early and influential slasher flick. Hitchcock is masterful in his manipulation of our sentiments and Bernard Herrmann’s score is stunning.SPOILERS: The shower scene is one of the most famous in all of cinema and the cellar scene is also marvelous.
North by Northwest (1959)
A marvelous script by Ernest Lehman pairs up with Cary Grant to make this the best of Hitchcock’s “innocent man on the run” movies. The later James Bond films were heavily influenced by sequences from North by Northwest. The cropduster sequence is also one of the most famous in all of cinema. What could possibly threaten you in broad daylight on a bleak flat prairie?
Underappreciated in its day, this truly is one of the greatest films of all time. Slow down, take your time, and let this film mesmerize you with its vivid and meaningful colors, its haunting symbolism, and gut-wrenching heartache. James Stewart was in top form and Kim Novak was actually a great choice, despite Hitchcock’s misgivings. Top marks for Saul Bass’s opening titles, the rooftop chase, and (SPOILERS!) the marvelous hotel room scene, and the shattering conclusion. All topped off by Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score.
This film was unavailable for a decade. I first saw it on a big screen at OU’s film series when it became available again in the 1980s. The students stood up and applauded after it ended; something I had never seen them do before for any film.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
This is a gorgeous film with gorgeous people. Light fluff for Hitchcock, but wonderfully romantic. Grace Kelly was never more beautiful or flirtatious, and you simply can’t go wrong pairing her with Cary Grant. The fireworks kiss scene is quite wonderful and Grace’s outfits are almost as stunning as she is.
Rear Window (1954)
Grace Kelly is stunning once again in this much more serious tale; her entrance is amazing. Jimmy Stewart allows us to sympathize with a voyeur, the world outside his window drawing us in. This one has a prime example of why Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense. We are led to adore Grace’s character, and the scene where she is bravely and recklessly searching an apartment across the courtyard is incredibly intense at that point in the movie. I’ve repeatedly seen fellow viewers tense up, yell at the screen, and even stand up in anguish, their hands at their mouth, during this sequence.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Robert Walker turned in this magnificent acting work shortly before his death. The film is chock full of symbolism: pairs/doubles, gazes/eyes, and the homoeroticism slipped right past the censors. There are so many great scenes! Among many outstanding bits are the cocktail party, the tennis match and the lost lighter, the murder at the carnival, and the carousel sequence.
This one features beautiful work by Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in their prime, along with a surprisingly sympathetic villain in Claude Rains. The kissing scenes are well known, but (SPOILER) my favorite segment is when the spies are discovered and Claude and his evil mother plot a slow murder; the abandonment by Grant in Bergman’s greatest hour of need is devastating.
This is a very dated and uneven film, but it has some stunning visuals and Bergman once again pours on the love as she did in Notorious and, of course, Casablanca. Gregory Peck is stiff, but that fits his amnesiac character, and character actor Michael Chekhov is simply lovable. The dream sequence by Salvador Dali is fascinating, and the (SPOILER) final confrontation is both suspenseful and, with its massive point-of-view gun and two red frames of film, visually impressive.
Hitch made over 50 films and there are many more worth your time. My top 20 would add The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Lifeboat, Shadow of a Doubt, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version), Marnie, and Family Plot.
If you haven’t indulged in some Hitchcock, please do so! You won’t be disappointed.