Yes, people. I’m doing it! I’m taking the dive and plunging into one of the most beloved and prolific film directors of all time. How exactly does one possibly encapsulate the career of a genius who directed about 60 feature films and practically invented a whole genre – Suspense – and whose flourishes have their own adjective – Hitchcockian? A 50 year career; that’s pretty easy to pin down, right? Well, I’m going to have to do what I always do and pick my personal favorites. Rest assured, I love a whole lot more Hitchcock films than just these seven.
Alfred Hitchcock‘s movies are weird for me. They’re none of them about happy or jovial things, but the way I feel while watching them is not unlike the way I feel watching a Hayao Miyazaki or Jacques Tati movie: warm, contented, and safe. I’m not sure what it says about me that movies where people get murdered make me feel safe and warm, but I’m gonna call that the power of Hitch and not the psychosis of me. Let us begin.
7) The Birds (1963)
This represents one of two films on this list that begins as a completely different story that then suddenly gets dragged into a horror movie, to the point where you almost wish nothing happened so you could watch the characters continue to interact normally. But, alas, this is Alfred Hitchcock, so bad things will and do happen. Tippi Hedren plays a spoiled rich girl who comes to Bodega Bay from San Francisco to continue a flirtation with a man (Rod Taylor) who knew her from before (though she doesn’t remember him at all) by bringing a pair of lovebirds for the man’s little sister. The small oceanside town looks idyllic enough, and the people seem nice, although they all have history, and you’re just about lulled into the story of this town when a bird suddenly swoops down and bites someone. Ow. Luckily it’s only an isolated incident, right? The film is based on a Daphne du Maurier novella and the best thing about both is that the reason for the birds’ attack is never explained. Ever. It just happens and it’s terrifying. The other best thing is this five minute trailer that Hitch himself hosted, which seems like a pleasant lecture about birds, but isn’t.
6) The 39 Steps (1935)
Many of Hitch’s films, especially early on, were about secret agents or espionage of some sort. This is the best place to find one of his famous MacGuffins, or the thing which gets the plot going but which isn’t actually important at all. In his 1935 masterpiece, a completely normal man (the wrong man, you might even say) gets embroiled in a plot concerning the existence of an underground ring of spies called “the 39 Steps,” which no one is supposed to know about. Like a lot of good Hitchcock movies, there’s plenty of stuff aboard the sexiest form of travel, a train.
5) Psycho (1960)
This is, obviously, one of the most iconic and important films of all time, and is definitely up there among Hitchcock’s best work. The only reason it’s not higher for me, despite me always getting a thrill when I’m watching it, is that once the shower scene happens, the rest of the movie just sort of coasts along, and once Martin Balsam meets his own fate, we’re left in the company of people who are pretty boring. I want more Norman Bates! Still, it’s a brilliant and effective movie that Hitchcock made on the cheap using his crew from the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a powerhouse score by Bernard Herrmann, and a scene that runs three minutes and has 50 different cuts that make this truly a work of art and Hitch’s first true horror film. It features another tongue-in-cheek trailer.
4) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
This is one of my favorites because it perfectly expresses Hitchcock’s ability to create menace without actually showing anything violent or scary. In this, young Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is excited about a visit of her favorite uncle and namesake Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). He’s a very intense man, but it’s clear he loves his niece. However, soon a couple of police detectives come knocking, undercover, of course, and tell young Charlie that her uncle may in fact be the infamous Merry Widow Murderer, a man who takes old ladies for all their money before killing them horribly. From that point on, we see Uncle Charlie through young Charlie’s point of view, and he starts to seem real guilty, and will do anything to keep from getting caught, even if it means doing bad things to his beloved niece.
3) Vertigo (1958)
One of the most unsettling movies ever made, this is a film that was sort of atypical for Hitchcock but was actually maybe the most representative of his own psyche. It features James Stewart as a police detective who’s developed a fear of heights that induces vertigo following a near-death experience. Afterwards, he’s hired to follow around a rich man’s suicidal wife (played by Kim Novak) whom he believes is possessed by some otherworldly force. After following her, Stewart becomes fixated, obsessed by her, and decides she must be attempting to kill herself because she’s somehow related to a woman who flung herself down the tower of a mission. But when Stewart fails to save this woman, he goes into a despair, until he meets a redhead (also played by Novak) who could maybe, just maybe, look like the icy blonde he loved. It’s a chilling portrayal of obsession and Stewart’s career was changed after this, since he was no longer the same everyman good guy he had been. Below is, without doubt, one of the worst trailers for a great movie of all time.
2) Strangers on a Train (1951)
This is a movie I probably watched about nine times when I discovered it in college, and it’s still one of my very favorites, and it features one of the best terrifying villains of all time in the form of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) just happens to brush his foot against Bruno Anthony on a train one day. Bruno recognizes him immediately and the two begin talking. Bruno soon realizes they each have a problem: Guy wants to marry a socialite but is already married to a money-grubbing shrew, and Bruno’s rich father is so domineering and controlling that the heir can’t do anything. He proposes that they each murder each other’s problem, since there’s nothing to connect the two people, there’ll be no motive, and they’ll have rock-solid alibis for their own problem’s death and hence no one to assume they’re the murderers. While Guy says “sure, Bruno, sure,” as a means of assuaging the clearly insane man, Bruno does indeed carry out the murder of Guy’s wife, at a carnival (which is the setting for two of the film’s best sequences) and he then begins following Guy around, demanding that he make good on his end of the deal.
1) North by Northwest (1959)
This may well be a perfect adventure thriller, and one of the most enjoyable times you can have watching a movie. This represents Hitchcock with all the studio support in the world, gorgeous technicolor photography, and star power out the yin yang. With the exception of Stanley Donen’s Charade, Cary Grant did most of his best work with Hitchcock, and here he’s able to show off all aspects of his presence, from comedy to drama. Grant plays ad exec Roger Thornhill who, by making a simple gesture, gets mistaken for someone named George Kaplan. He’s abducted and taken to a large estate and interrogated by someone (James Mason) whom he believes to be the owner of the establishment, then drugged and sent off in a car to be killed. However, he isn’t killed and he attempts to explain to the police what happened, but no evidence of any wrongdoing remains. He then tries to track down George Kaplan, traveling all over America to do it, but finding out the truth about Kaplan might be even more dangerous than the lies. There’s a big ol’ MacGuffin in this movie, and at any moment, it seems like someone’s going to jump out and kill our hero, who knows next to nothing. Still, it’s Cary Grant, so he’s bound to be up for the challenge. I love this movie to bits. It is, in my humble opinion, THE Alfred Hitchcock movie.
And, like I said, there are plenty of other Hitchcock movies I love; Rear Window, Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, and Frenzy just to name a few. But, I want to know what your favorites are. Let me know below!