Whenever geeky film conversations turn to the topic of the greatest British directors, a few answers frequently crop up: Charlie Chaplin, David Lean, Nicolas Roeg, and Michael Powell are just a handful of a list of potentials, but there is one man whose impact on film history outclasses almost all contenders: Alfred Hitchcock.
Born on the cusp of the 20th Century, Hitchcock came to define entire genres of cinema in a career that spanned over 50 years and over 50 films. His body of work – not to mention his rotund body itself – is both immense and iconic, full of tense thrillers, psycho-dramas, and adventure flicks that were not only wildly popular at the time, but inspired both critical re-evaluation and whole new generations of filmmakers in ensuing years.
The French New Wave critics picked Hitchcock as a prime example for their auteur theory, a way of reading films that highlights the creative authority of the director over all other influences. As with any crackpot critical theory, auteurism becomes a little masturbatory and inaccurate when applied generally, and its dismissiveness towards other aspects of the creative process is downright ungenerous. But there’s something about a Hitchcock film – the dry wit, the recurring themes, the willingness to experiment with the art form – that is undeniably distinctive. Indeed, the genius of Hitchcock’s career can be rather overwhelming to behold.
So where do you start? Well, you could do much worse than perusing our list of the Top 10 Hitch-flicks.
While Hitchcock is held up as one of filmmaking history’s true auteurs, his first Hollywood feature is, in many ways, a studio film, as it was his first picture directed under contract to David O. Selznick. By 1940, this legendary producer had made his name by creating lavish adaptations of literary epics, such as Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, and the high-grossing, Oscar-nabbing Gone with the Wind.
Rebecca, adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, is no different. Typical Hitchcock flourishes, like adventurous thrills and humor, are missing. But in their place is a masterful piece of psychological suspense, as Joan Fontaine’s unnamed protagonist is hounded by the memory of her new husband’s (Lawrence Olivier, fresh off his turn as Heathcliff in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights) dead, former wife.
It certainly convinced the Academy, who honored the film in 11 Oscar categories, and awarded it Best Black & White Cinematography (for George Barnes’ gothic gloom) and Best Picture. That award, of course, went to Selznick while Hitchcock had to make do with the first of his five Best Director nominations.
Shadow of a Doubt
Just three years after Rebecca, Hitchcock perfected his dark, suspenseful style with Shadow of a Doubt, but the film has one quality that is rather unique in retrospect. Here, the suspicious protagonist is a teenage girl. Charlie (Teresa Wright) is utterly bored with her life in suburban California until her rebellious Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) – her namesake – turns up, with reports of murder following him from the big city.
While Shadow of a Doubt contains the familiar Hitchcockian tropes of deceit and serial killing, the lack of urban environments, international espionage, and steamy sexual tension gives the film a real edge. As Charlie the Younger, Teresa Wright is Hitchcock’s most vulnerable heroine, but she is also his smartest and most capable, as seen in her slow investigation into her uncle’s activities. In a canon full of femme fatales and murder victims, she stands out. As does, it must be noted, Joseph Cotten, who uses his jovial, charming manner to utterly chilling effect.
The Lady Vanishes
Or, as it should perhaps be known, “Spies on a Train.” In 1938, Europe was on the brink of war, and Hitchcock, after over a decade of thrilling, innovative success in his country of birth, was on the cusp of making the cross-Atlantic leap to Hollywood. The Lady Vanishes may not be his last British film (that would be Jamaica Inn), but it’s certainly a last-hurrah for the witty, stiff-upper-lipped adventures he excelled at for much of the ’30s.
Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave star as two passengers on a Trans-Europe Express train who must unravel the mystery of a disappearing old dear, and the military secrets that might change the course of history. But the scene is resolutely stolen by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who appear as Charters and Caldicott, a pair of prim Britishers who have their own crisis to worry about: the test match in Manchester.
The Trouble With Harry
Sporting one of the best taglines in movie history – ‘A comedy about a corpse!’ – The Trouble With Harry is remembered as one of Hitchcock’s major cinematic diversions, and one that provided the director with one of the biggest financial flops of his career. Time, though, has been kind to this quirky curio, allowing it to sit comfortably next to dark comedies like Harold & Maude and Heathers.
Harry’s trouble, it turns out, is that he’s dead, and it seems that any one of a handful of rural townsfolk could have killed him. But who did the deed? Was it the old maid, the retired sea captain, or perhaps Harry’s estranged wife (played by a delightful Shirley MacLaine, in her first starring role)?
Hitchcock’s films have always exhibited a strain of pitch-black comedy, but here the director indulged his penchant for gallows humor to the fullest, not least in the many scenes where the three suspects conspire to hide the corpse from the over-zealous local lawman. If his many murder-mystery thrillers treated its dark subject matter with tension at its most tragic, The Trouble With Harry sees it at its most farcical.
Like The Trouble With Harry, Rope deals with the aftermath of a murder. The enigmatic trailer, which features a short scene between a young man and his fiancée, declares, ‘That’s the last time she’ll ever see him alive. And that’s the last time YOU’LL ever see him alive.’ Indeed, the murder itself is committed in the opening shot of the movie, and from thereon out, the entire film takes place in a trendy New York loft where the homicidal pair murderers – a deliciously smarmy John Dall and an emotionally fragile Farley Granger – come to terms with their actions.
Unlike Harry‘s kooky humor, Hitchcock wrings the situation for all of the tension he can get, as dinner guests flood the apartment, and Dall’s cocky manner starts to grate on Granger. James Stewart, in his first Hitchcock role, plays against type, as the boys’ former schoolteacher, whose cynical, nihilistic worldview might have inspired the murder.
It’s a brilliant set-up, perfectly executed by a director who, by then, had already garnered a reputation as the Master of Suspense, but Rope stands apart because of one incredibly ambitious flourish. Years before digital filmmaking allowed such experiments like Russian Ark and Timecode, Hitchcock envisioned Rope as a single, unbroken shot, using sweeping camera movements and masked cuts to better engross the audience in the single location, and to inspire claustrophobia as the simmering tension starts to boil.
Much is made of Hitchcock’s formal experiments, which included meticulous miniatures, in-camera effects, and even a dalliance with 3D, but Rope, which was also his first color film, is that rare case where the technical risk pays off enormously.
The 39 Steps
Hitchcock’s British films are often overlooked in favor of his Hollywood heyday, but every aspect of his cinematic character can be glimpsed in the fertile 13 years before he eloped across the Atlantic, when he made some of the UK’s best pre-war flicks. The 39 Steps is the best of the lot, taking John Buchan’s source adventure novel and turning it into a cross-country caper, as Richard Hannay (a superbly suave Robert Donat) stumbles into a mystery involving assassins, military secrets, and a music hall performer with a photographic memory.
Typical of early Hitchcock, The 39 Steps was brutally efficient, with a lean narrative structure that took you all over the literal and metaphorical map, from London to Scotland and back again, encompassing both a ‘wrong man’ cross-country chase, a twisty espionage plot concerning the most meaningless of MacGuffins (design specifications for a silent aircraft engine), and even a little bit of screwball romance, no doubt influenced by Frank Capra’s archetypal flick It Happened One Night. Likewise, after Hitchcock’s previous film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, used London landmark the Royal Albert Hall to great effect, The 39 Steps featured thrilling sequences in the London Palladium and, most notably, on the Forth Bridge. And all this happens in a mere 86 minutes. Take note, Chris Nolan.
What is there left to say about Vertigo? Every frame of this film has been extracted, poured over and analysed to the point where, despite its enduring reputation, it’s easy to forget that it’s an incredible film in its own right – a daylight noir that takes an unexpected turn into surreal, unsettling psychological territory.
James Stewart stars as Scottie, a retired San Francisco detective who finds himself knee-deep in a new case, investigating the claims of an old buddy’s wife that she is possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. From there, things just get weirder, as Hitchcock’s favorite themes of murder, madness, and obsession are raised to near operatic levels.
Vertigo has inspired generations of filmmakers, from the late French director Chris Marker to David Lynch, the king of the mundane made nightmarish. Indeed, Scottie is not unlike a grown-up version of Kyle MacLachlan’s teen snooper in Blue Velvet, and the way that Hitchcock plays with Stewart’s gee-whizz persona, as Scottie’s twisted obsession with Madeleine (played by Kim Novak, the iciest of the director’s icy blondes) turns him from good ol’ guy to an unseemly monster, has much in common with Lynch’s predilection for revealing the ugliness hidden behind innocence.
But, for all this powerful drama, Vertigo still exhibits the unexpected, undercutting comedy that crops up so often in Hitchcock’s films. Scottie’s long-suffering ex-girlfriend, the rather tomboyish painter Midge, is a classic Hitchcockian supporting lady, full of humor and playful banter. And the film’s climax, while on the one hand a thrilling resolution of plot, theme and character, features one of the funniest last-gasp non-sequiturs in cinema history: death by blundering nun.
A wheelchair-bound James Stewart, convalescing in his apartment with only his camera for company, turns his journalist’s eye on the neighboring residents of his tenement block. One day, he spots what looks like a man murdering his wife. But are his eyes playing tricks on him?
Rear Window is another impossibly iconic film, born of a handful of brilliant cinematic ideas. A single location, a cabin-fever set-up, a murder close to home, and a vulnerable protagonist whose curiosity puts him in serious danger. Each complements the other to create a thriller that is as unified and as finely crafted as its elaborate apartment block courtyard set.
It’s testament to the evocative simplicity of the film’s narrative conceit (pilfered from a short story by writer Cornell Woolrich called It Had to be Murder) that has allowed Rear Window to remain a reference point for generations of filmmakers and TV writers. Even recently in radioactive-reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, Rear Window‘s film’s poster was used as a visual shortcut – appearing on Peter Parker’s bedroom wall as a quick hint at the voyeuristic undercurrent of the character’s photographic obsession with Gwen Stacy. It was a neat link to make, but only because of Rear Window’s undimmed resonance.
Psycho is an undisputed horror classic. Its impact is only slightly diminished by the fact that almost all of its iconic moments have been parodied, sampled and ripped off time and again for the last 50 years. Bernard Herrmann’s razor-sharp string arrangements, Anthony Perkins’ genuinely creepy turn as the shy, charming killer Norman Bates, and Janet Leigh’s grisly murder in the shower are all very familiar. Even if you’re not a horror aficionado, it is essential viewing nonetheless.
Shot on a much smaller budget than Hitchcock’s previous films, and using the close-knit crew he’d groomed on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show, Psycho was a lean, effective, and inspired thriller that arguably gave birth to a genre of its own. And it paid off.
Made for a mere $800,000 – less than a quarter of the cost of its immediate predecessor North By Northwest – Psycho grossed upwards of $30 million over its extended run, and provided Universal with a property it has continued to milk to this day. But, more than anything, it served as Hitchcock’s most daring riposte to the Production Code, delivering an edgy, thrilling film that dealt with horrific matters intelligently and artfully. When twinned with similar films of the period, such as Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, it helped sound the death knell for Hollywood’s most conservative institution.
North By Northwest
The best film ever made? Well, certainly the best film ever made about nothing at all. Taking cues from both The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps, Hitchcock turned his framed-man-on-the-run, MacGuffin-powered archetype into a glorious, technicolor marvel, which thrills and delights in equal measure.
But what sets North By Northwest apart from its British forebears, other than a superlative Bernard Herrmann score and the sense of scale that comes from taking the whole endeavour stateside – a choice that culminates in an iconic tussle on the literal cliff-face(s) of Mount Rushmore – is the genteel quirkiness of its lead, Cary Grant.
Sure, by the time of North By Northwest, Grant was a Hollywood icon. He’s, in Pauline Kael’s words, ‘the male love object’ whose stardom was predicated on a sophisticated, graceful sexuality. But his performance as Roger Thornhill, the Madison Avenue ad man who is mistaken for a spy, rests just as much on Grant’s sophistication, and the way he wears that iconic suit, as it does his dopey sense of comic timing.
After all, the man was once Archibald Leach, the Bristol-born vaudevillian tumbler who, like Hitchcock, flew to Hollywood in search of mega stardom. And it’s this comic flair – Thornhill’s pratfalls, mis-steps and, most of all, his henpecked relationship with his overbearing mother – that elevates North By Northwest right to the top of the Hollywood tradition of continent-spanning spectacle. In many ways, the film paved the way for James Bond, Indiana Jones, and many of the blockbusting action thrillers that annually fill our local multiplexes, but few are as slick, as stunning, and as silly as North By Northwest.
Bubbling under… The Birds, Strangers On A Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Notorious, and many more of Hitchcock’s 50-odd films. But what have we missed?