On the anniversary of Hitchcock’s death, our staff celebrates the filmmaker’s lasting legacy by sharing our favorite films from his storied career.
“The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Intro by The Angry Princess
Born in Leytonstone, Essex, Alfred Hitchcock began his career as a title card designer. His first successful film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), helped to shape the thriller genre.
By 1939, he had achieved international fame. Film producer David O. Selznick persuaded him to move to Hollywood. A string of successful films followed, beginning with Rebecca (1940), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. By 1960, he had directed four films often ranked among the greatest of all time: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960).
By 2018, eight of his films had been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. He received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1979 and was knighted in December that year, four months before he died on April 29, 1980, at his home in Bel Air, California, leaving behind one of the most illustrious careers in film history.
Hitchcock was an anti-establishment rebel who spent most of his career pushing boundaries and testing the limits of the oppressive Hays code, the industry guidelines that regulated the content of Hollywood films.
The Master of Suspense was also a master of subversion, cleverly circumventing the rules at every turn. While making “Psycho,” he intentionally sent the Hays Office scenes with graphic violence and nudity to distract them from censoring the more subtle shots he really wanted. He also convinced the officials that a shot of a toilet — long forbidden by the Code — was crucial to the film’s plot.
Despite an expansive, immensely influential body of work, spanning six decades and consisting of over 50 feature films, Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for Best Director — though he was nominated fives times (for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho). When Hitchcock finally received an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 1967, he gave one of the shortest acceptance speeches in the ceremony’s history, saying only, “Thank you…very much indeed.”
No, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, thank you.
Recommended by Jason McFiggins
Teaming up with mega producer David O Selznick (Gone With the Wind, King Kong), Rebecca marks the first American production for Alfred Hitchcock.
Adapted from the 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, the story involved the kind of psychological mystery that Hitchcock was attracted to and excelled at. Rebecca received a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations (including all three acting leads and Hitchcock himself for director), winning Best Cinematography and Best Picture.
Rebecca tells the story of Mrs. de Winter (an affecting and fantastic Joan Fontaine), a rather subdued woman who is newly wed to widower Maxim de Winter (a brooding, internally isolated Laurence Olivier), a rich and noble member of upper society. Mrs. de Winter struggles to adjust to her new role while being intimidated and manipulated by Maxim’s estate housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, masterfully chilling), and virtually haunted by the mental presence of Maxim’s dead first wife, Rebecca.
The constant references to and reminders of the deceased Rebecca keep her presence firmly in the home, causing Joan Fontaine’s newly wed Mrs. de Winter to live in a state of discomfort and alarm.
A Gothic story about ghosts without ghosts, Rebecca is moody and riddled with underlying context.
The large house, although beautiful, makes every scene heavy and full of secrets. The interactions between characters (namely Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers) breathe life into this shadowy feeling, the history of the house becoming a suffocating obstacle for both Mrs. de Winter and Maxim himself.
Of course Maxim de Winter is guilty of harboring secrets as well, but he tries harder to keep them from his new bride than the gaslighting and frightening Mrs. Danvers.
In classic Hitchcock fashion Rebecca has a few plot twists up its sleeve. These twists are made more effective by the film focusing almost entirely on character development and their complex relationships to each other. The old saying “if these walls could talk” pertains largely to Maxim’s sprawling estate by the sea (known as Manderley), but here the looks between characters and the silences that go with them do enough communicating.
Gorgeously shot and well acted, Rebecca is a slow burn unraveling of the past colliding with the present.
It’s expertly crafted in the way only Hitchcock knew how.
Rebecca has a remake currently in post-production from director Ben Wheatley (A Field in England, Free Fire), and starring the excellent Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Armie Hammer as Maxim, and Kristin Scott Thomas as the all important Mrs. Danvers. That perfect casting should have you reconsider the reflexive dismissal and put this remake on your radar, look for it next year.
But in the meantime watch the original masterpiece that is Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
Recommended by Alli Hartley
Hitchcock is one of my all-time favorite directors. While his masterpieces are well-known, with Rear Window, Psycho, and North by Northwest numbering among the greatest films of all time, I often prefer to watch his earlier works.
North by Northwest is a polished and effective thriller, with thrilling sequences and a tightly-knit plot. But the 1942 film Saboteur acts almost as a rough draft of North by Northwest, making use of a very similar plot (an innocent man framed by a powerful cabal) and similar set pieces highlighting Americana.
Saboteur works as a series of those set pieces, with airplane machinist Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) crossing the county in search of the mysterious Mr. Fry, the man responsible for setting a fire that killed his best friend.
Despite its lack of polish, I infinitely prefer Saboteur to North by Northwest.
The inimitable Dorothy Parker is partly responsible for punching up the dialogue. Her acerbic wit combined with Hitchcock’s wry distrust of the law give Saboteur a class consciousness that is missing in North by Northwest.
The poor, working class folks trust and believe in Barry, while those who are rich and well-connected are deceptively evil. They work above and beyond the law. The kindly grandfather, Charles Tobin, is one of Hitchcock’s best villains, and the twist revealing his true nature comes as a legitimate shock.
Saboteur also has a great sense of fun.
Barry meets a variety of great characters, from the truck driver who “nothing ever happens to” to the conjoined twins that can’t stop bickering. Even the advertisements on the road help to tell the story, as the billboard model, Pat, tries to turn Barry in — belying the sweet nature of her character in the billboard campaign.
At its best, Saboteur is a truly original iteration of one of Hitchcock’s famous “the wrong man” themes, one that, though a little preachy at times, has some innovative and delightful moments.
If you’re a fan of the Master of Suspense, Saboteur is a lesser-known treat that’s well worth your time.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943)
Recommended by Christi Bandy
It has been said that Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favorite film out of the many iconic films he directed. Though it may lack the shock value of a film like Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt is a slow-burning thriller that creeps up on you then pulls the rug out in the last few seconds.
I grew up with a father who loved horror, which planted an early seed for me. We would watch black and white movies together on weekends as I grew up, beginning a long love of Universal Monsters and Hitchcock movies, which are some of my dad’s favorites.
I still remember the horror of Psycho, the eeriness of Rear Window, the creeping fear of The Birds. These movies instilled a lifelong passion for the genre in me.
Shadow of a Doubt is a movie that has a fabulous noir quality to it.
Long shots, crisp black and white photography, interesting characters, and sharp wit distinguish it from other films. I love the friendship between the younger Charlie’s father and his best friend, who both love detective novels and constantly try to one-up the other on the best ways to murder someone and get away with it. Ah, the days before DNA were great ones!
Teenage Charlie is a unique and lovable young woman named for her beloved uncle Charlie, her mother’s brother. When the elder Charlie comes to visit, his younger namesake is the first to slowly realize her uncle isn’t the amazing, perfect man she has come to admire. In fact, he may be a ruthless serial killer on the lam from the authorities. As her suspicions come to pass and evidence comes to light, she struggles with how to handle the new knowledge that she’s given. Her mother would never recover from seeing her younger brother arrested for such horrific crimes.
Invading the family-friendly, scenic town of Santa Rosa where Charlie, her parents, and her siblings live, Uncle Charlie is hoping to hide amongst the innocent townspeople, something that’s impossible when you’ve committed a bevy of murders.
Beautifully filmed and acted to perfection, Shadow of a Doubt lingers long after the credits roll.
It’s also worth mentioning that Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, garnered her first writing credit on this film, though it’s said she often gave her famous husband input as scripts were written. It ended up taking a group of six people to craft this well-mastered tale; four of whom were credited. One of those people was Thornton Wilder – yes, the author of Our Town.
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Story, there’s no denying that Shadow of a Doubt boasts an amazing, psychologically twisted tale, especially for the era. The ending is especially bittersweet, as you know Charlie struggled to decide to keep her uncle’s crimes a secret from her family in the end, knowing how much it would hurt her mother.
How could anyone take that secret to the grave?
Recommended by Vicki Woods
Though I have been a Hitchcock fan all my life, Spellbound is a film I had neglected to see. This film noir classic is a fascinating look at what psychoanalysis was thought of in the 1940s. Freud’s work was extremely popular in America at this time, and his basic concepts are used in the film. Having studied psychology in college, I couldn’t help but notice how easily the therapy worked and what an unrealistic depiction of psychoanalysis it was.
But being that it is a movie, Hitchcock did not have the luxury of the time it would take in real life to have such breakthroughs, so it was forgivable. Though, making it so magical made the process come off a bit silly at times.
At the Green Manors mental asylum, the longtime head Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) has a breakdown and is going to be replaced. Dr. Anthony Edwardes will be taking over his position and is scheduled to arrive any time.
Also employed at the institute is Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). She is a beautiful, shy woman who is well-educated, insightful and because she is not interested in all the men fawning over her, is considered cold and detached.
When Edwardes (Gregory Peck) shows up, it isn’t long before it’s clear he is no psychoanalyst. He is an imposter with amnesia who only knows that his real initials are JB, and that he thinks he killed Dr. Edwardes and took his place.
Constance and JB fall instantly in love and the film follows her attempt to clear the man she is infatuated with. The acting was adequate between these two Hollywood stars, but I didn’t see overwhelmingly great chemistry, even though there were rumors that the two actors actually had an affair during the filming.
I still enjoyed Spellbound and I loved seeing the use of different types of psychiatry, even if they were a tad improbable.
Some of my favorite scenes had nothing to do with the central story. A drunk guy hitting on Constance at the hotel who gets rejected, was very amusing. And I loved her former mentor Dr. Brulov played by the brilliant Michael Chekhov. He was one of the best characters, a silly but smart doctor with an accent, reminding us that Freud was the Father of Psychoanalysis. Between him and Constance, they were perfect every time they analyzed JB’s dreams!
The parts of the film that I had the hardest time tolerating were the things men said to Constance. So many rude misogynistic statements that made my skin crawl. Even the nice guys in the film talked down to her. I realize it was acceptable at the time…. but wow, they were terrible.
If you are a Hitchcock fan, or want to delve into his library of films for the first time, Spellbound is a clever diversion with enough suspense to keep you wondering, a good twist at the end and an interesting look at early psychoanalysis. Except for the blatant sexism, the film overall was fun and entertaining.
A little trivia for you; listen for the theremin in the soundtrack. It was the first time one was ever used in a film!
Recommended by The Angry Princess
Hitchcock may have more than earned his own notoriety as the undisputed Master of Suspense. But such a title fails to do justice to the scope of his genius. He was also a master of horror, a master of comedy, and — as Notorious so magnificently proves — a master of romance.
Widely considered one of Hitchcock’s crowning achievements, perhaps the best film in his remarkable six decades long career, Notorious is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Working from an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Ben Hecht, Hitchcock crafted a brilliant and beautiful tale of espionage, tortured romance, crippling pride, and the dangers of misplaced trust — or lack thereof.
Ingrid Bergman, in one of her most captivating and nuanced roles, plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a recently convicted Nazi spy with a reputation for overindulging in alcohol and the company of men.
Cary Grant plays Devlin, a suave American intelligence agent who shows up at a party to recruit Alicia for a secret mission in Rio. She refuses at first, until he plays her a secretly recorded tape that reveals just how much she hated her father for what he did and how much she loves her adopted country.
Once in Rio, the couple falls in love, though Devlin is reluctant to reveal his true feelings. Their romance is quickly tested when Devlin learns of Alicia’s mission: to seduce a prominent French leader of Nazi sympathizers, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). To complicate matters, Alexander and Alicia share a past; he was once smitten with her, though she failed to return his affections.
Although devastated by the news, Devlin plays it cool around Alicia. He refuses to ask her not to accept the mission, though she begs him to do so. Feeling hurt and dejected, she begrudgingly accepts her role, while Devlin sees her willingness to be with another man as proof that she can’t be trusted.
The chemistry between Grant and Bergman is electric.
And though we never see the kind of steamy, onscreen intimacy modern audiences have come to expect from cinematic romances, every scene the two share is erotically charged and dripping with desire.
There’s an early scene between Grant and Bergman that was famous at the time for being “the longest kiss in the history of movies.” But it was not, in fact, a single kiss. The Hollywood production code prohibited showing a kiss lasting longer than three seconds. Hitchcock cleverly got around the code by breaking up the three-minute long kissing scene with dialogue, nuzzling, and sensual eyeplay. This forced creativity increased the effectiveness of the scene dramatically — infusing it with deep longing, romantic tension, and carnivorous desire.
Notorious is one of the most visually spellbinding films from a filmmaker known for his attention to aesthetic details. A masterclass in technical craft, it contains some of the most effective and unforgettable camera shots in the cinematic repertoire of Hitchcock — or any other filmmaker.
Elegant, impeccably paced, and flawlessly executed, Hitchcock crafts a perfect film that’s equal parts suspense and romance, seduction and heartbreak.
Notorious is a sublime masterwork in which all the pieces come together with perfect precision, culminating in a breathless climax where two men simultaneously realize just how wrong they were about one woman.
Recommended by Kirby Kellogg
Part of the small but surprisingly inspired genre of films based on the crimes of Leopold and Loeb, Rope is often overshadowed in Hitchcock’s canon by his bigger and more horrifying future works.
It’s in that niche space in the late forties where his success was on shaky ground, nestled between the highly expensive but so-so Paradine Case and domestic drama failure Under Capricorn.
The late 40s aren’t a period of Hitchcock’s career often fawned over.
Personally, though, I think Rope’s one of his most brilliant works.
The second of Hitchcock’s single set films after 1944’s Lifeboat, Rope is drawn from the Patrick Hamilton play of the same name (fun fact, Hamilton also created the play that became the film Gas Light which spawned the psychological term “gaslighting”) and stars Farley Granger and John Dall as the anxious and weak-willed Phillip Morgan and his stronger partner-in-crime Brandon Shaw.
Having committed what Shaw insists is the “perfect murder’ on a former Harvard classmate, the two invite a multitude of friends for a dinner party — including the parents and fiance of the victim — with the corpse in the trunk right under everyone’s noses.
Playing cat-and-mouse with them is the brilliant Jimmy Stewart as Rupert Cadell, whose talks about the Ubermensch and the art of murder inspired the crime itself.
Done in ten takes and edited to look like one, Rope is a gorgeous little thriller.
There’s no whodunit, only a question of if Morgan and Shaw will get away with their crime. It’s brilliantly acted and the tension between Cadell, Morgan, and Shaw is palpable.
Whether or not that tension is homoerotic is up to interpretation.
While not part of Hitchcock’s best years, Rope is still a brilliant film and a look into Hitchcock’s future of more high stakes thrillers and the trail of corpses in his wake.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)
Recommended by Matthew Currie Holmes
What makes Hitchcock brilliant is that, in all his films, he asks one simple elegant question: “What would happen if…”
Actually, it’s not the question that makes him brilliant, it’s his answer.
What would happen if a voyeuristic, wheelchair bound man accidentally witnessed a murder? Rear Window would happen. What would happen if two people who had never met, ended up discussing how easy it would be to get away with murder? The answer is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film: Strangers on a Train.
Strangers on a Train has what I think is the simplest set up of any Hitchcock film, a conversation between two people… both with problems, one of whom just happens to be an entitled psychopath.
Farley Granger plays poor, but up-and-coming tennis player Guy Haines, an amiable man who wants to marry Anne (Ruth Roman), the daughter of senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll); and he will as soon as he gets that divorce from his promiscuous wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers).
Robert Walker plays Bruno, a brilliant, rich, sexually ambiguous psychopath who meets Guy on a train and casually tells him that he knows how to commit the perfect crime — two strangers meet and swap murders. Bruno’s logic is sound. Both strangers would get away with it because it would simply look like two random deaths with no motive. Easy Peasy.
Guy is amused by this, right up until Bruno says that he would be happy to take out Miriam if Guy would be so kind and kill his father (Jonathan Hale).
Bruno takes the initiative and unbeknownst to Guy, kills Miriam in the second greatest on-screen murder (Psycho shower scene cannot be beat) of Hitchcock’s career, leaving Guy the prime suspect and clever, crazy Bruno holding all the cards. The rest of the film is a delicate back and forth between two adversaries, one gleefully in his element, the other, unbelievably out of his depth.
Strangers on a Train is a perfect film, bolstered by a perfect set up.
It asks a simple question and then leads the audience down a wicked path of double cross and moral ambiguity so specifically, that if Guy were a gumshoe and not a tennis pro, this would be a classic film noir.
Farley Granger and Robert Walker (in his last finished on-screen role) are mesmerizing to watch as they lob and volley dialogue back and forth, each trying desperately to gain the upper hand. What Hitchcock does so well here is that he allows the psychology to take center stage. It’s easy to fight against action, even easier to show it. What’s nearly impossible to make entertaining is someone competing and winning at a battle of wits.
Don’t get me wrong, there is action in Strangers on a Train, like the aforementioned murder— complete with its brilliant, tense set up, and the bonkers finale at a runaway merry-go-round that almost defies description. But the star of the show here is ‘gaslighting’.
Strangers on a Train is the greatest example of Alfred Hitchcock doing what he does best: throwing an innocent man into an impossible situation, just to see if he can get out.
REAR WINDOW (1954)
Recommended by Jay Krieger
The inherent challenge of single location storytelling is keeping the locale engaging throughout the film’s duration. On paper, it seems like a creatively limiting decision, but in capable hands, it is one that can provide infinite storytelling possibilities. There are few more influential examples of single location storytelling than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window.
Photojournalist L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair recuperating from a broken leg. His days are spent gazing out of his Manhattan apartment window, observing the daily lives of his neighbors.
What begins as harmless observations turn into a deadly game of cat and mouse between Jeff, his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), and a mysterious neighbor.
Rear Window remains a standout amongst Hitchcock’s other murder thrillers, given the immense detail stuffed into every frame.
Hitchcock captures the claustrophobic confines of city living, portraying it as an unassuming locale filled with everyday people. Jeff’s isolation observations convey subtle nuances of everyday life, revealing his neighbors’ characteristics through their actions rather than exposition. This makes his bustling neighborhood feel less like a set and more of an ever-evolving singular setting.
Hitchcock smartly makes each neighbor easily definable in a matter of seconds while remaining critical to developing Rear Window’s atmosphere. Notable neighbors include the boozy pianist continually refining his craft, a flirtatious dancer, newlyweds whose curtain remains closed, and the lonely hearted middle-aged neighbor. While simple to describe, each character’s personality comes to the surface through their actions, which gives Jeff, and the audience, an unbiased profile of them. What you see is what you get.
For example, rather than being told why Jeff’s elderly neighbors sleep on their fire escape, the audience can infer its due to the sweltering heat. The audience never needs the reason why the newlywed’s shade remains drawn; instead, we know why through Hitchcock’s dynamic presentation as well as subtle facial reactions from Stewart.
I regularly return to the film to become immersed in its unique singular setting and the numerous ways Hitchcock made it a vibrant and highly detailed place.
Hitchcock crafts Jeff’s neighborhood with a sense of reserved normalcy that makes the film’s murder that much more shocking.
This act of violence brings the neighborhood together and happens to be the neighbor’s only real utterance of dialogue, as trivial as their shouting might be. We learn with our eyes rather than our ears for a majority of the film’s narrative.
Rear Window is a masterclass in character and tension and remains one of Hitchcock’s most memorable murder mysteries.
Recommended by Kourtnea Hogan
Dethroning Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound’s greatest movie of all time, Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a beautiful, dizzying display of filmmaking.
I was infatuated with Vertigo before I ever saw it. The poster art captivated me as a child, and left me wondering what the figures were spiraling down to. What did this man want with the female figure? Why was he gripping her so tightly?
If you go into Vertigo blind, you might be convinced that you’re watching a love story driven by a man who suffers from, you guessed it, vertigo. And then, by the midpoint, you may be tricked again into thinking you’ve stumbled upon a tragedy.
But what you’ve really found is a woman’s nightmare.
Forced to resemble her partner’s past lover in every way, Judy Barton is forced into a role she doesn’t understand and can’t escape as Scottie spirals further and further into insanity.
While you certainly can view Vertigo as a movie that pushes forward the idea that men must feel power over women, and that their gaze is the only one that matters. After all, Hitchcock is notoriously known as a sexist patriarchal tyrant. But while you may feel for Scottie’s series of tragedies and his slip into the chasm of mental illness, Judy is our real hero.
And if you’re left to identify with her, root for her, this turns this movie into a deep analysis of how women are forced into beauty standards against a backdrop of spirals elevated by motion sickness inducing camera angles.
Midge is beautiful, but not love interest material. I mean, come on, we all know women with glasses aren’t peak attractive. Glasses are often used as a correlation of intelligence, and we certainly can’t have a woman being smarter than a man. Scottie is unable to be with a woman who could make him feel inferior in any way. And part of being a total master over someone is making sure that they are docile.
Midge’s personality, her talent, is too powerful for a man to appreciate.
In order to be sought after, a woman must be a dreamlike doll, eager to listen.
Did Hitchcock intend for Vertigo to shine a light on the pressures women are put under? It’s possible; people tend to be very good at analyzing everything but themselves. It’s hard to make the connection between female empowerment and Hitchcock, a man who reveled in tormenting his beautiful leading ladies.
But you know what they say: even a broken clock is right twice a day.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Recommended by Jeremy Herbert
In the essential filmmaking text Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut writes off the entire James Bond series as “nothing else than a rough caricature of all Hitchcock’s work, and of North by Northwest in particular.” It might sound harsh if he wasn’t talking about Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest in particular.
It does any film a disservice to chop it up and weigh it on the merits of it separated tissues. Everything works in biological congress — the performances, the writing, the direction, the score, the stunts, etc. — but there’s no understating the profound influence of North by Northwest’s set pieces on every action, adventure, and espionage blockbuster since. The imagery is certainly eternal — no viewer looks at a crop-duster the same way once they’ve seen it — but what endures is the pace.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman pitched it to the director as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Luckily, Hitch had ideas. Too many, it turned out. Left to his own devices and a stack of notecards with disconnected sequences, gags, and locations, Lehman traced the cross-country footsteps of his man of mistaken mystery.
If North by Northwest seems like a machine of breathless, almost spontaneous speed, that’s because it is.
In his travels, Lehman answered the same question a dozen different ways — And now what? A killer crop-duster. A drunk driving grand prix. A murder at the United Nations. A chase across a national monument. Each of them the kind of Swiss-watch stunt that could centerpiece a Mission: Impossible ad campaign.
All as loosely connected as thriller convention allows. If Jaws created the summer blockbuster, in just as many ways, North by Northwest created the modern blockbuster. In the wrong hands, it would be an incomprehensible mess of explosions and sight-seeing.
In Hitchcock’s hands, it’s high art.
North by Northwest has everything writer Lehman promised Hitchcock: wit, sophistication, glamor, action, and lots of changes of locale.
The title fits it to a tee — nonsense by any objective measure, but irresistibly accented with the promise of continental thrills. There are no low moments, no bum notes. Cinematic rules are broken at will in the interest of a good time — most infamously, an exposition scene is drowned out by jet engine the second it gets boring.
If any of this sounds like faint praise, and comparing anything to modern blockbusters is dubious on a good day, I mean it in awe.
This may be a tired metric for old movies, but ‘North by Northwest’ could play your local drive-in tomorrow and not a single brake light would twinkle for a snack run. The scope and scale that’s so exhausting today, is refined to its sharpest, funniest, sexiest essence.
There’s a reason Cary Grant was offered the role of James Bond three years before Connery.
He even wanted to do it, but producers wanted a multi-picture deal and at nearly 60-years-old the star wasn’t keen on a long-term time investment. Even if he did play Bond, it would’ve been an impossible act to follow. Grant’s Roger Thornhill is the perfect Hitchcock hero in what may be the perfect Hitchcock thriller.
A wrongfully accused man runs across the foreheads of Mount Rushmore with a femme fatale on his arm and a sharp-dressed killer at his heels. That’s not just a grand finale.
That’s what movies are all about.
THE BIRDS (1963)
Recommended by Nightmare Maven
Based loosely on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name, The Birds follows socialite and notorious practical joker Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) who is shopping in a San Francisco pet store when she meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). He is looking for a pair of love birds for his younger sister’s birthday. Mitch recognizes Melanie but pretends to mistake her for an assistant.
She decides to get back at him by buying the birds and driving up to the quiet coastal town of Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends his weekends with his sister and mother. Shortly after she arrives, Melanie is attacked by a gull. But this is just the start of a series of attacks by an increasing number of birds.
Often regarded as the last great Hitchcock film, The Birds received mixed reviews upon its release.
Many of the critics who panned the film said Hitchcock was at his best when exploring human menace rather than this fantastical tale of killer birds. However, I find that elements of human menace are present in the film as a result of the lack of explanation for the birds’ behavior. Because of this lack of explanation, one character goes as far as to blame Melanie for the strange attacks. And you absolutely could argue that Melanie – and Mitch – are inadvertently the cause of the strange avian attacks.
In Lydia’s (Jessica Tandy) eyes, Mitch and Melanie’s relationship is not right. And nature itself shares that belief, as all of the attacks in the film are linked to the couple’s interactions in some way.
To me, this is Hitchcock’s most brilliant work, exploring human behavior through something as strange and random as bird attacks.
Hitchcock builds the suspense perfectly by easing the audience into Melanie and Mitch’s flirtations — building tension with each bird attack until Mitch’s family is trapped in their house with the now horrifying sound of birds trying to get in.
I vividly remember the first time I saw The Birds, mostly because I might have been too young, about nine- or ten-years-old at the time.
What I remember most about that first viewing was the complete shock and terror I felt when Lydia (Jessica Tandy) goes to her neighbor’s home and finds him slumped in the corner, eyes viciously pecked out; the camera – just as viciously – cuts closer and closer to the dead man’s face. To this day, that scene still scares the life out of me.
Recommended by Joy Robinson
What is there to say about Psycho that hasn’t already been said a million times? It is truly Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece and one of the greatest films of all time, horror or otherwise. It’s so ingrained in the American cultural psyche that even people who have never seen the original film instantly recognize the name Norman Bates and the sound of those iconic shrieking violins. It broke barriers that irrevocably changed the landscape of horror films.
Every Western horror film made after 1960 owes something to Hitchcock and Psycho.
Although it was considered by many critics at the time as a blight on the Master of Suspense’s reputation, Psycho’s longevity is a testament to just how masterful Hitchcock was at building tension and providing a satisfying payoff. It’s a murder mystery that loses nothing by the viewer knowing “whodunnit” — it’s just as effective the hundredth time as it is the first.
The reveal is just as shocking when you already know what’s in the fruit cellar.
The tension strikes up the moment Marion Crane picks up the $40k; it builds steadily as she drives off, imagining in great detail the consequences of her crime, and arrives as the desolate Bates Motel.
Both Marion and the audience are briefly lulled into a false sense of security with sandwiches, a homey motel parlor, and Norman Bates’ boyish charm. But the cracks in that security quickly start to show, enough for Marion to realize she’d better turn around and go home before she gets in too deep.
Before you can think “good for her,” Hitchcock yanks the rug out from under everyone, cutting the tension (literally) with one of the most recognizable, most imitated, and most analyzed scenes in cinema history.
The infamous shower scene is just one of Psycho’s many controversies that kicked down the doors for every horror film that followed.
Hitchcock took on the Motion Picture Production Code and won. The result left critics across the country shocked and disgusted while audiences were clamoring for more — and they got it.
Post-Psycho horror became more bloody, violent, and sexual than ever before, and Hitchcock’s film came to be considered the origin of the slasher sub genre. Norman Bates walked so Michael Myers could run (well… at least metaphorically).
A thorough analysis of Psyhco’s themes, Hitchcock’s directorial nuances, the subtleties of the performances, and the film’s full legacy is an effort much too exhaustive for one person. There has been more written about the film than most of us will ever read in a lifetime. Critics and fans have been talking about Psycho non-stop for sixty years and will continue to do so for another sixty.
Not bad for what was originally called a “blot” on Hitchcock’s “honorable career.”
Recommended by Syd Richardson
The third and final film Hitchcock directed in his home country follows down-on-his-luck bartender Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) and the fight to prove his innocence to the police when he becomes the main suspect to the notorious neck-tie murders plaguing London. The real culprit is in fact Blaney’s good friend and local produce merchant, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who violently rapes his victims before strangling them with a tie.
Admittedly, my interest in Hitchcock is relegated to his classics such as Psycho and The Birds, but Frenzy has a certain charm about it that can only be attributed to Hitchcock; namely, the murder scenes, which feature close up shots of helpless women in their death throes, mouths open and eyes wide. In the background, a crescendo of blaring music.
This is no whodunit here, folks; we get a front row seat to Rusk committing the murders. But that doesn’t mean this movie is worth skipping.
While I may not be the biggest Hitchcock devotee, I found myself thoroughly engaged over Frenzy’s nearly two-hour run time.
There’s also something probably something to be said about the characters who carry the film, Rusk and Blaney. While only one of them is the actual killer, both display some alarming proclivities for violence that makes the plot — the notion that Blaney is the killer — work.
Though Blaney is supposed to be the “hero” of the film, he’s shown time and time again to be a cynical, spiteful man. He’s insulting towards his ex-wife, unable to control his temper, and is implied to have been violent in his previous marriage. You’re supposed to be rooting for the man, and he does have his moments of goodness, but Hitchcock doesn’t shy away from making him completely abhorrent at times.
Between Blaney, Rusk, and a host of other questionable men and dysfunctional partnerships, the only person I was rooting for was the long-suffering police Chief Oxford (Alex McCowen) and his faux-gourmet cook wife (Vivien Merchant). The scenes where he’s trying to explain the case while staring down at a plate of her atrocious looking meals, like fish stew and quail with grape sauce, was actually pretty hilarious.
Frenzy is an exciting mystery with a host of interesting characters, and the comic relief sprinkled in doesn’t make it feel too over-the-top.
BONUS: HIGH ANXIETY (1977)
Recommended by Jeremy Herbert
Every Mel Brooks parody soars or sinks by two factors: the popularity of and Mel’s affection for its target. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are the gold standard. Everybody knows Westerns. Everybody knows Universal monsters. Mel clearly, dearly loved both. Spaceballs, by contrast, takes aim at one of the biggest franchises in film history, but most of the gags don’t have much to do with science fiction, let alone Star Wars. It’s funny, a classic on certain shelves, but by no means a passion project.
High Anxiety, by contrast, is a love letter to a director who’d just made his final film, The Family Plot, a year before. In a telling sign of the times, Hitchcock’s movie cost more than Brooks’s spoof and made less than half.
In 1977, Hitchcock-as-genre wasn’t taught in film schools yet.
Vertigo was still seen by all but a select few as a kooky misfire. The director’s last big, un-asterisked hit was The Birds, fifteen years prior. Affordable home video wouldn’t arrive until the ‘80s, so it’s not like anybody could run out on a Friday night and rent Rear Window. Even the New York Times deemed it a “film-buff comedy.”
It was a strange time to make fun of Alfred Hitchcock, halfway between his peak and reappraisal, and that makes High Anxiety all the more worthwhile today.
Of all the Mel Brooks parodies, it’s the most narrow, taking aim at a single filmmaker instead of a whole genre. Some of the best gags about Hitchcock’s style play like speedbump non sequiturs to the uninitiated; Brooks hides exposition in his own special way, as Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman keep moving their teacups around a glass table and repeatedly ruin the shot for the camera below. That’s a silly scene, but it lands a whole lot better with a working knowledge of Hitch’s torturously designed frames.
Such dedication to specific convention does have a cost — it doesn’t quite hit the highs of the Brooks classics they write retrospectives about — but it does pay off.
High Anxiety functions as an honorary Hitchcock movie, give or take.
It has the plot, borrowed liberally from Vertigo and seasoned to taste with the rest of his filmography. It has the cinematography, as intensely studied and replicated ’70s great Paul Lohmann. It even has the music, courtesy of John Morris doing his best Bernard Herrmann.
If it commits a cardinal sin, Roger Ebert diagnosed it: you can’t quite spoof something that was intentionally funny in its own right. But that just makes it more of a piece with Hitchcock’s work than a set-aside parody. Though it still does have plenty of Brooks flair (see: Brooks’s hero begrudgingly belting out the superb title song to a fancy restaurant and doing crowd work between verses).
And if you don’t buy that, Hitchcock sent Brooks a box of cigars after seeing the finished product, with a note that said, “Have no anxiety about this.”
It may not rank among Mel’s finest comedies or Hitch’s tensest thrillers, but it barely comes up in conversation for either filmmaker, and that’s criminal. If you’re a fan of any of the above, give it a try. Have no anxiety about that.