Masterpieces of Suspense: The Top 10 Hitchcock Films

Hitchcock The Lady VanishesAlfred Hitchcock. The greatest director of all time? Maybe not. The most iconic? Who are you ranking ahead of him? His combination of artistic output and oversized public persona, burnished by famous cameo appearances in movies and cemented by his constant presence on TV in the new medium’s formative days, makes him arguably the most recognisable (non-acting) movie director of all time. The man had two feature films built around him just two years ago, more than thirty years after his death. What other film director can claim that?

Last week, Hitch would have celebrated his 115th birthday. In honour of that, my colleague Simon Butler and I decided to each choose our five favourite Hitchcock movies. Since he directed more than 50 features, spanning more than 50 years, we had no idea whether we would agree on any. Here, then, are the results.

Jon’s List

Blackmail (1929)

Hitch began Blackmail as a silent, but when it became clear that sound was the wave of the future, British International Pictures suggested he convert it to sound. The result is a fascinating blend of expert silent suspense and an almost uncanny understanding of how to use the newest toy in the filmmaker’s arsenal. The “knife” scene alone is worth the price of admission.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The high point of Hitch’s British career is this marvellous comic suspense story about a sweet old lady who disappears on a train in a mysterious part of central Europe. More of an ensemble than the very similar, and very good, The 39 Steps, Hitchcock is working on all cylinders. In addition to the young and attractive central couple, played by Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, there is an outstanding supporting cast, featuring Dame May Whitty as the sweet old lady, Paul Lukas as the formidable villain, and Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, as two cultured English gentlemen, whose passion for defending their homeland is only surpassed by their passion for finding out the latest cricket scores. A treat on all levels.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Hollywood’s earliest attempts to capture the “situation” in Europe circa 1940 tended to be mostly juvenile, with cardboard Nazis and simplistic solutions to the present danger. But the European expats, like Fritz Lang and Hitchcock, knew better, and their films reflected much more sinister conditions. This thriller, with Joel McCrea as a naïve and pompous American reporter who becomes educated about the seriousness of events in Europe, also boasts some excellent character work from the likes of Robert Benchley and Herbert Marshall, and features the outstanding production design of William Cameron Menzies.

Rear Window (1954)

This may be Hitchcock’s most beloved movie, featuring such fan favourite actors as James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter. Hitchcock loved to challenge himself with difficult set-ups (as in movies like Lifeboat and Rope). Here, he films virtually the entire movie from one set – the apartment from which the bed-ridden Stewart watches life go on in the back-alley outside his window. The multiple subplots offer up romance and humour, and maybe even murder. Film theorists love to opine on the voyeuristic nature of the set-up and how it mirrors the way an audience watches a movie. I’d rather opine on Grace Kelly. The brief sequence of her hovering over Stewart as she moves in for a kiss is both highly erotic and oddly terrifying – images which succinctly capture Hitch’s well-known complexities regarding the opposite sex.

Psycho (1960)

The amount of information we now have on Psycho most likely means it will never have the power and mystery that it delivered in 1960. Still, it remains one of the most audacious horrors ever produced. It also features one of the ten greatest performances by an actor in cinema history. I would go so far as to argue that Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is the biggest difference between Hitchcock’s iconic film and a very similar film directed by another leading British director that very same year. But whereas Psycho helped resurrect Hitchcock’s career, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, starring the more modest Carl Boehm, was a commercial disaster that essentially ended Powell’s career.

Simon’s List

The 39 Steps (1935)

There’s so much to like about this seminal picture – from the music-hall beginnings to the chase scenes on the Scottish moor – which demonstrates the evolution and maturation of Hitchcock as a filmmaker. Suspense abounds, along with humour from a crackling script … and I dare you to get the movie’s crucial theme music out of your head. Of course, the film is bolstered by the urbane Robert Donat as the “wrong man” (one of the originals in Hitch’s canon) and the sexy Madeleine Carroll as the woman who ultimately believes in him. This is a flick I can watch over and over again.

The Lady Vanishes

Jon’s assessment of this great film is on point, and – as I’m a sucker for mysteries set on trains – The Lady Vanishes strikes a major chord in my soul. One thing that’s interesting about it is how funny it is; the dialogue between Wayne and Radford is drily hilarious, and Redgrave is charmingly impish. It’s interesting to pair this film up with The 39 Steps to see how the former developed from the latter, which feels less fluid and more clipped, though no less brilliant. Great, great moviemaking.

Foreign Correspondent

Kudos again to Jon for saying what needs to be said about this perpetually underrated picture, a seriously suspenseful wartime film that tackles the conflict without gloss. Adding to the mix is a bit of whimsy supplied by George Sanders in an unusually positive role, as well as a masterful set piece – one of Hitchcock’s most memorable – involving a windmill turning the wrong way. For some reason, this film isn’t seen as much as the director’s more famous flicks, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good.

Spellbound (1945)

All right, this one – Hitchcock’s foray into the world of psychoanalysis – is a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t have the greatest script in the world, and the stars, Gregory Peck as a man who thinks he committed a murder, and Ingrid Bergman as his shrink, are, admittedly, not very good. But oh, there are joys to be found here: thrills, romance, great cinematography, a creepy score by Miklós Rózsa, lines (you’ll make fun of them endlessly once you see this picture) and one of the best dream sequences ever made, a hallucinogenic, literally eye-popping scene envisioned by Salvador Dalí and filled with crazy images. It’s got to be seen to be believed, and everyone should see it.

Frenzy (1972)

Sex and violence became more than just suggestions in the director’s sole masterpiece from the permissible 1970s, which uses his “wrong man” theme, as well as its London location, to great effect. It’s surprisingly dark, with a horrific rape scene, as well as some of Hitch’s best touches: a couple of hilariously stomach-churning sequences involving a police inspector and his wife, who is under the misguided impression that she’s crafting gourmet dinners for him; and a shot of a murder-to-be where you don’t see the crime and instead follow the camera as it ambles out of the building. Mix in a sharp script by Anthony Shaffer, and you’ve got gold.

Notes: Though we agreed on some and disagreed on others in our five favourites, oddly enough, we had the same titles as numbers six and seven. If either of us had to replace something on our list, we would both go for Hitchcock’s own personal favourite Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or the outstanding crop-dusting/Mount Rushmore thriller North by Northwest (1959). But neither of us chose the movie that ended Citizen Kane’s five decade run as the greatest movie of all time according to the recent Sight and Sound list – Vertigo (1958).

So, what did we overlook? What are your favourites?

About the Authors

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/ and at https://twitter.com/rockynrudy.

Simon Butler is a writer and editor living in Forest Hills, NY. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and is a big movie buff, with favourite flicks including The Seven SamuraiLawrence of ArabiaThe Seventh Seal and, of all things, That Man From Rio. His film-centric blog may be found at cinemablogishkeit.com.

24 thoughts on “Masterpieces of Suspense: The Top 10 Hitchcock Films

  1. Pingback: Scurte #266 | Assassin CG

  2. There is something funny going on here–I too couldn’t see the other comments until mine posted.

    The trouble with Pscyho, I think, in addition to the psychological absurdity of the entire premise, is that the characters just aren’t that interesting. Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam all do an admirable job investing their portrayals with a a great deal of humanity, but their characters are simply dull and, accept for Perkins’ bits of overacting, mostly humorless. It’s hard to care what happens to them.

    Also, the narrative is so fractured–it lacks continuity and feels like two or three different movies, Marian’s story before she meets Norman, her arrival at the motel and the infamous shower scene, and then her sister’s search for her–they feel disconnected somehow.

    It was the revolutionary brilliance of the shower scene, the sensationalism of the “split personality” theme (cross dressing!), and, as noted, Hermann’s score that made this movie such a phenomenon. Without those, I think it would be generally considered one of Hitchcock’s lesser works.

  3. What? A list of Hitchcock’s bests and no Cary Grant? Definitely a list compiled by critics suffering from Y chromosome disorder.

    I’ll admit I have not seen Foreign Correspondent, Blackmail, nor the 39 Steps (although I did see the delightful farcical version now playing in London’s West End just a few weeks ago) — must remedy that.

    But of the many Hitchcock films that I have seen, my five favorites, in no particular order, are:
    Vertigo, Rear Window, Rebecca, Suspicion and the Lady Vanishes.

    Next five would be Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder.

    Frenzy is the only one I really don’t like–just too creepy, although the actual scariest one, hands down, is the Birds. The Freudianism in Pscyho, Spellbound, and Marnie is just way too over the top for me–as Simon noted, Spellbound is unintentionally funny, although admittedly each contains some great scenes.

    • I’ll plead guilty to the chromosomal myopia. It’s funny, because Cary Grant is my favorite Hollywood actor, but with the exception of NxNW, I don’t think he was ever great for Hitchcock. Even in Notorious, which is a first rate movie, he takes a back seat to both Bergman and Rains. He was fun in both Suspicion and To Catch a Thief, but I don’t think either is great. Oh well.

      As for Psycho, I know there is some push-back against it, and against Perkins, who I think is extraordinary. I appreciate the fractured narrative in part because it mirrors the fractured character of Norman. That doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it makes more sense to me than other movies, which use similar, but unmotivated structures. And I always find the most remarkable thing about the movie is just how creepy those scenes of Vera Miles simply exploring the Bates home at the end are. Nothing happens. It is mundane, and yet imbued with sadness and terror. At least for me. It’s in large part due to the important contribution of Bernard Herrmann. I think his score is remarkable. And though I agree that the characters played by Miles and John Gavin are pretty bland, I do find a lot of humor in the supporting turns from the likes of John Anderson, Frank Albertson and John McIntire. I think Lurene Tuttle whispering that Norman’s mother and her lover were found “in bed” is somehow hilarious. Anyway, that’s my defense. Thanks for weighing in.

    • You make a good point about Cary Grant–two of Hitch’s movies starring Grant nearly made my favorites: Notorious and North By Northwest. I have to confess I’m not as much of a fan of Dial M for Murder owing to its stagy aesthetics, though the murder scene is brilliantly done. Agreed about The Birds, though–scary stuff!

  4. I think the issue might be on my end, Pete! Missing commenst … whoa! At any rate, I agree with your assessment of Marnie–that’s one of my least favorite films. I also completely despise Under Capricorn, and I’m not too fond of Torn Curtain. But I do like Family Plot, even though I recognize it’s not on a par with Hitch’s greatest works.

  5. I have to admit, my favorite Hitchcock film is a comedy.
    I love “The Trouble with Harry.” It’s a farce with a dead body and sweet little romances.

    • Kate — I think you are the first person I know who would choose Harry. But I think it is clearly better than his other well-known comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as well as anything involving weekends with Bernie.

  6. Hi, Pete–I’m responding here because for some reason your comment only shows up sporadically. I think it’s interesting that you mention Strangers on a Train–I like that film a lot, and it missed being one of my favorites. But I agree with you about Robert Walker’s performance; he’s absolutely brilliant. And it has one of the great set pieces that Hitch did: when Bruno is trying desperately to get his lighter out of the drain. There’s really so much to choose from with Hitchcock, though I respect your opinion that he’s not your favorite director.

    • I have the ‘Curse of Curnblog’ for some reason. Could make a good modern film?

      You asked in a comment (that appeared on my blog at least…) what Hitchcock films I didn’t like. It;’s a big list, I’m afraid. ‘Marnie’, ‘Verigo’ ‘North By Northwest’, ‘The Birds’ ‘Rope’, ‘Psycho’, ‘Topaz’, ‘Family Plot’. None of these really hit any spot for me. (Sorry David) I do like many others though. ‘Rebecca’, ‘Blackmail’, ‘Frenzy’ ‘Rear Window’, ‘Shadow Of A Doubt’, and the aforementioned ‘Strangers ON A Train’. I just don’t hold him in the same esteem as others. And he was English too!
      Best wishes (if you ever get to see this) from England. Pete.

      • Marnie I totally agree with you on. Terrible film. So is Under Capricorn, for that matter. Even Hitch made a dud now and then. We’ll have to agree to disagree on most of the others, Pete. 😀

  7. I have a fairly good collection of Hitchcock films, but I guess my favorite will always be “The Birds.” I love the dialogue in that film, and the scares and suspense are very effective even after multiple viewings.

    • I love The Birds, too! I was considering that as well, but I have to confess: There are some terrible performances in it, notably Tippi Hedren’s and, yes, Jessica Tandy’s. But some of the set pieces are absolutely brilliant: The birds gradually collecting on the jungle gym; the gas station scene, etc. Prime Hitch.

    • I don’t like The Birds as much as you and Simon do, but I have to admit that I was recently driving near Bodega Bay and saw a flock of birds. I got chills and looked around to make sure I wasn’t about to be attacked. So obviously the movie has some undeniable power.

  8. Well with you two combining on this one, I am reluctant to get involved! (But I will…)
    I am not one of those devotees of Hitchcock, and consider most of his films to be vastly overrated. However, I do have a fondness for the earlier films on the lists, as well as one not mentioned, ‘Strangers on a Train’ (1951), starring Farley Granger, and one of the best psychopath performances ever committed to celluloid, from Robert Walker.

    Given the general love and admiration of Hitchcock, I have no doubt that this will prove to be a very popular post.

    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Wow–for some reason, your post just appeared now! Cool. Anyway, I agree with you about Strangers on a train, as well as on Robert Walker’s sinister yet, dare I say it, charming performance as Bruno. Great stuff. I’m curious: Which of his films do you consider overrated? I’d put up Vertigo myself, but only because it’s so much more highly praised than films of his that I feel are better paced. (I do, however, believe that Vertigo is a great film.)

    • Pete — my first film book was The Great Films by Bosley Crowther in which the leading critic in America chose his fifty best movies, as of 1967. Titles that I would never consider, like Intolerance, Ivan the Terrible, and Ulysses, made Crowther’s list, but no Hitchcock. He famously wrote off Psycho as drab and boring. So you’re certainly not alone in thinking that Hitchcock’s career is overrated by many. I agree about Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train — especially if you’ve seen his modest output, mostly as a light male lead, prior to 1951 — and I think Granger is actually a bit underrated in his part, but too much of that movie (mainly the Ruth Roman scenes) is dull for me to rank it as high as some of the others.

      • I am replying quickly Jon, before I ‘disappear’ again!
        I agree with Bosley about Psycho. I never got that film, perhaps because I also found it drab, and Perkins penchant for over-acting got in the way of what could possibly have been a much better film. I also agree with you (mostly) about Strangers On A Train, except for Robert Walker, as I haven’t forgotten his performance to this very day.
        I do appreciate that Bosley and I are in a minority though.
        Best wishes, Pete.

      • Crowther definitely had some particular tastes. (I would agree with him on Ivan the Terrible and disagree with him on the others you mention.) But it’s a funny perception of Psycho. Without Bernard Herrmann’s score, I think it would be drab and boring. And one of the things Hitch did with the film is show the procedures of a serial killer: Tony Perkin’s mad murderer cleaning up the mess meticulously, as well as waiting — like the audience — for the car to be submerged in the swamp. It’s really ahead of its time, methinks. Not always enjoyable like, say, The Lady Vanishes, but seminal.

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