Alfred 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Seventh Seal and, of all things, That Man From Rio. His film-centric blog may be found at cinemablogishkeit.com.