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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fifteen Masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock

During his lifetime, Alfred Hitchcock was thought of as a master showman who kept his audiences entertained with suspenseful movies and quirky TV shows. Since his death in 1980, Hitchcock’s legacy has been reappraised by both scholars and the general public, and he is now thought of as one of the most significant – if not THE most significant – filmmaker of the 20th century. Blending humor, suspense and drama with a genuine understanding of the foibles of the human condition, Hitchcock’s films have continued to rank higher and higher on the list of most critics and filmmakers, culminating with Vertigo’s selection in 2012 as the #1 film of all time in the Sight and Sound Critic’s Poll.
These then are the 15 essential films that anyone must see in order to begin to understand Hitchcock’s work and complex filmmaking technique. His career was divided into two distinct periods, the British (pre 1940) and American films, and this list is made up primarily of the American films. But Hitchcock’s early British films are extremely important to his career, and anyone interested in learning more about Hitchcock should also see these honorable mentions: The Lodger, The Manxman, Blackmail, The Man Who Knew too Much (1934), Sabotage and Young and Innocent, as well as the two British masterpieces on this list. Fortunately, most of Hitchcock’s American films have been restored and released on blu-ray and his 9 silent films have also recently been restored by the BFI.

15. Rebecca (1940)
In March, 1939, Alfred Hitchcock came to America under a seven year contract with producer David O. Selznick. William Rothman remarked that “Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood is like Haydn’s move to London: for the first time, he has a great orchestra at his disposal.” Although Hitchcock used the technological advancements he found in America to great effect – such great effect that the film would win the Academy Award in 1940 for Best Picture, the only Hitchcock film to do so – he would also later somewhat disavow himself of the film, telling Francois Truffaut “it’s not a Hitchcock picture” and that the film is “lacking in humor”.
Although many view the film as a struggle for control between the domineering producer Selznick and his new ‘employee’, Rebecca is an audacious American debut for Hitchcock, a film steeped in shadows and light, gloomy gothic atmosphere, and a tremendous performance from Dame Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. The film takes up what will become a major theme for Hitchcock, that of one’s identity becoming subsumed by one who is not there, who is in fact, dead. The dead ruling the living occurs again and again in Hitchcock and is given a fine treatment in this, his first American film. Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine play the leads effectively, and George Sanders is his usual slimy troublemaker as Favell, Rebecca’s “cousin”.

14. Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder
Hitchcock was also somewhat dismissive of this film, shot for Warners in 3-D but initially released flat (although it was given a re-release in 1982 in a 3-D version and has now been released on blu-ray in 3-D) telling Truffaut “there isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?”
A hit play by Frederick Knott, Dial ‘M’ reflects Hitchcock’s love of theater and long standing desire to film a play, which he also attempted with less success in Rope (1948). The film also features the first appearance by Grace Kelly, who became the ultimate ‘Hitchcock blonde’, as well as one of the director’s most suspenseful sequences when Kelly’s Margot is attacked by would be killer Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson).
Dial ‘M’ also points to one of Hitchcock’s primary theories, which is that your film is only as good as the villain. In this case, Ray Milland is at his oily best as Tony Wendice, plotting the murder of his beautiful but unfaithful wife on one hand, while eventually trying to frame her for Lesgate’s murder. Robert Cummings is along as the boyfriend and John Williams is a rare positive police figure in a Hitchcock film. Sometimes underrated, you should see it in 3-D if you’re going to see it at all.

13. The Birds (1963)
The Birds
We can’t NOT include it on this list, but The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s most problematic films of his essentials. Made as a follow up to the tremendous success of Psycho, The Birds was Hitchcock’s most hyped film and audiences were somewhat disappointed by the cardboard characters and the oddly ambiguous ending of the film that never reveals a ‘reason’ for the bird attacks.
Hitchcock and Even Hunter adapted a Daphne DuMaurier short story and moved it from the Cornwall coast to northern California’s Bodega Bay, adding his new find Tippi Hedren into the mix as Melanie Daniels, in pursuit of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and under the attack of swarms of birds. The film has some truly terrible moments, such as the awkward conversation between Mitch and Melanie during Cathy’s birthday party on an awful fake looking set (many of Hitchcock’s 1960’s Universal films suffered from the studio’s poor production and set design) but the bird attacks are fantastic for the most part, and a great technical achievement for their time.
Tony Lee Moral has written a good book on the making of the film that describes the technical problems Hitchcock faced and, for the most part, overcame. A good supporting cast featuring Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy help the film along, but Hedren is better in her next film for Hitchcock, Marnie.

12. Notorious (1946)
Hitchcock worked closely with his screenwriters, although after he came to America he never took a credit. He teamed with esteemed writer Ben Hecht in the mid 1940’s on Spellbound, his second film for Selznick, and Notorious, which was supposed to be his third film for the producer. But Selznick needed cash in order to complete his western epic Duel in the Sun, and so sold the film as a package to RKO, leaving Hitchcock to produce Notorious himself, and make one more film for Selznick, 1947’s unfortunate The Paradine Case.
Notorious is considered by many to be Hitchcock’s greatest film of the 1940’s, featuring the brilliant romantic pairing of Cary Grant as American agent T.R. Devlin and Ingrid Bergman as Miami playgirl Alicia Huberman, who flies down to Rio with Devlin in order to infiltrate a ring of Nazis led by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Raines). When Sebastian asked Alicia to marry him, Devlin most confront the conflict between his growing feelings for Alicia and his duty. Alicia is put in a similarly difficult spot, marrying a man she doesn’t love in order to help the cause and eventually being slowly poisoned by Alex and his mother. The film was beautifully photographed and became a major hit for Hitchcock, his last before suffering a commercial downturn later in the decade.

11. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
the lady vanishes leading roles
The culmination of the ‘sextet’ of 1930’s thrillers that catapulted Hitchcock to international fame, The Lady Vanishes shows the director at the peak of his powers during his British period. Margaret Lockwood’s Iris is riding home on a train to marry her blasé fiancee when she befriends Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly English matron who proceeds to disappear as Iris turns the train inside out looking for her.
This theme, of someone leading an ordered, boring, routine life having their world turned upside down by sudden chaos, is repeated again and again in Hitchcock. Michael Redgrave is charming as Gilbert, who at first annoys Iris but eventually falls in love with Iris as he helps her search for Miss Froy despite the interference of the strange and ominous passengers on the train.
The Lady Vanishes has hardly a dull moment, from its opening in a snowbound Balkan hotel to the almost madcap search for Miss Froy to the final shootout with the fascist forces of evil who want to stop her. The Lady Vanishes shows Hitchcock as a filmmaker capable of making the type of screwball comedies popularized by Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, and the film was virtually remade as Silver Streak in 1976 by director Arthur Hiller with Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh.

10. The Thirty Nine Steps (1935)
Hitchcock’s greatest early success was with this adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 novel, with Robert Donat as Hannay, whose trip to a London music hall propels him into a world of intrigue and danger. Accused of killing a female government agent in his own apartment, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland to uncover the ring of spies that the agent was looking for, and along the way he picks up Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) who at first turns him in but eventually comes to believe him.
As in many Hitchcock films, the story’s ‘MacGuffin’ (in this case uncovering the spy ring and keeping vital secrets from leaving the country) drives the action of the film forward, but the true importance of the story comes when Hannay and Pamela drop their defenses and stop bickering with each other, eventually joining forces and ending up falling in love. The final shot of their clasped hands is a classic.
A film that is very much about public lives versus private lives and the danger that comes when false appearances mask a dark and scary reality, The Thirty Nine Steps established Hitchcock as a force to be reckoned with on the international stage, eventually resulting in him signing a contract with Selznick to come to Hollywood.

9. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Hitchcock noted that his 1934 British version was the work of a “talented amateur”, while his 1956 Hollywood remake was the work of a “professional”. Featuring James Stewart and Doris Day as the McKennas, an American couple on vacation with their son who is summarily kidnapped after Dr. McKenna receives information from a dying British agent about a planned assassination of a foreign dignitary in London. The couple have to set aside their differences and work together to find their son and face down the kidnappers during the climactic scene at the Royal Albert Hall, almost unquestionably the greatest single sequence of any of Hitchcock’s films.
The Man Who Knew Too Much reveals why many view Hitchcock not only as a Master of Suspense, but also as a master of depicting characters beset by anxiety and stress during a time of great international tension and danger, anticipating the Cold War years to come. Although it may seem to be a little dated, especially during the sequence when Doris Day sings her hit song “Que Sera Sera”, The Man Who Knew Too Much is a major work for Hitchcock, putting forth all of the themes and motifs that preoccupied him for years.

8. Frenzy (1972)
After three disappointments in a row in the mid to late 1960’s, many felt that Hitchcock’s career was over. Although scholars were beginning to take Hitchcock more seriously by the time Frenzy was released in the summer of 1972, it had been over a decade since he had made a film that connected with the public in a big way. But Frenzy was a major success for the director and was universally hailed as a return to form.
Returning to his familiar theme of a man falsely accused, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is wanted for a series of vicious necktie murders actually committed by Blaney’s friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). Eventually Police Inspector Oxford (Alec McGowan) figures out that the police have caught the wrong man, but not before Rusk brutally murders barmaid Babs (Anna Massey) in a scene that features one of Hitchcock’s greatest shots, the uninterrupted crane shot backwards of the camera moving out into the street as Rusk and Babs walk up the stairs to his apartment where she will be murdered.
Hitchcock took advantage of the new relaxed censorship by showing ample violence and nudity in the film, a tactic that surprised some. But Frenzy is most notable for the way Hitchcock implicated his audience in Rusk’s horrific crimes, by linking the killer together with the falsely accused ‘innocent’ protagonist, Blaney, as if they are two of a kind. Frenzy is a dark descent into the mind and methods of a psychotic killer and is also Hitchcock’s great late period triumph.

7. Marnie (1964)
Marnie (1964)
Hitchcock originally intended to film Winston Graham’s novel as the follow up to Psycho, featuring Grace Kelly in her return to the screen as the problematic heroine. But, after expressing interest, the Princess of Monaco pulled out of the project and Hitchcock abandoned it, returning to it after The Birds with new star Tippi Hedren in the lead. Hitchcock changed the structure of the film from the novel, in which two male rivals fight for the interest of Marnie, instead casting heartthrob Sean Connery as Mark Rutland, who captures kleptomaniac thief Marnie after she has robbed his company safe and forces her to marry him. Diane Baker is Lil Mainwaring, who competes with the reluctant Marnie for Mark’s affections.
A complex psychological character study, Marnie features Hitchcock’s most complicated and creative use of color, suggesting Marnie’s state of mind through various palette changes throughout the film. The film also borders at times on the surreal, as the female protagonist struggles to maintain her sanity despite troubling dreams and occasions of emotional upset; indeed, the film seems to have highly influenced the 1966 film Belle de Jour by Spanish surrealist master Luis Bunuel. The final sequence of the film, in which Marnie flashes back to the childhood trauma that has caused her problems (check out Bruce Dern in an early appearance as the sailor who briefly comes between Marnie and her mother) is a tour de force, as the guilty secret is revealed to both Mark and the audience.
Featuring fine performances by Hedren, Connery, Baker and Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother, Marnie was originally decried by critics as ‘Hitch-cock and bull’ and received indifferently by audiences, but after both Robin Wood and Donald Spoto wrote critical reappraisals in their books, the film grew vastly in reputation. This is a must see and essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

6. Strangers on a Train (1951)
Strangers on a Train
In the late 1940’s, Hitchcock went into a commercial slide, with four films in a row that failed at the box office. Setting aside his newly formed production company, Hitchcock signed a production deal with Warner Brothers and produced one of his greatest films, based on the debut novel by mystery writer Patricia Highsmith.
Farley Granger is Guy Haines, tennis star and aspiring politician who has left his unfaithful wife, Miriam for the beautiful Ann Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of a U.S. Senator. Guy meets Bruno Anthony (brilliantly played by Robert Walker) as strangers on a train, and Bruno suggests to Guy they “swap murders”: Bruno will kill Miriam while Guy murders Bruno’s hated father. Each has killed a total stranger and thus has no apparent motive. But when Bruno goes ahead and murders Miriam, he then expects the hapless Guy to fulfill his part of the bargain, and the rest of the film features a classic Hitchcock dual structure, as Guy is pursued by both Bruno and the police.
Strangers on a Train is notable for the way that Hitchcock adroitly handled the ‘doubling’ motif of the exchange of good and evil; Bruno is Guy’s dark underside, acting out and fulfilling the murderous fantasies that Guy can only half-heartedly joke about. The ‘double’ theme recurs again and again in the film, from the opening shots of the two men’s feet as they arrive at the train station and eventually bump into each other, to the interwoven dual train tracks, playing doubles tennis, drinking ‘doubles’ and finally encountering other strangers on the train. Strangers on a Train became one of Hitchcock’s best known and loved films, popular with audiences and critics alike, a classic example of a merging of form and content and the director at the very top of his game. Doubles, anyone?

5. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
shadow of a doubt
Hitchcock frequently told interviewers that Shadow of a Doubt was his personal favorite film, and it is not hard to understand why. Based on a story idea by writer Gordon McDonnell (which was loosely based on a true incident), Shadow of a Doubt is the story of an innocent young woman, Charlie Newton (Theresa Wright) whose Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton) comes to stay with her and her family in the scenic all American town of Santa Rosa. But Uncle Charles is actually the cold blooded “Merry Widow Murderer” who is being pursued by the police and as the evidence against him piles up, his distraught niece eventually realizes the truth. A life and death struggle between the two ensues, as young Charlie tries to get her Uncle to leave town before the police nab him and her beloved mother realizes the shocking truth about her brother.
Shadow of a Doubt is filled with numerous references to Hitchcock’s own life and childhood, and so it is not surprising the personal interest that he took in the film. Filmed largely on location in Santa Rosa, which was unusual for the time, Hitchcock took the opportunity to create a number of breathtaking and inventive shots with which to tell his story. As often happens in Hitchcock, the movie opens with young Charlie bemoaning the boredom and predictability of her life, but as her world is shaken by the revelations about her Uncle, the young girl wishes she had her predictable and safe life back given the danger that has befallen her.
The film also is another re-working of the ‘good and evil’ double theme, as under the threat of her Uncle, young Charlie must look within herself to find the evil and darkness that gives her the capability to murder her Uncle. A modest success at the time, Shadow of a Doubt is a film that is essential to understanding the innovative film genus that was Alfred Hitchcock.

4. Vertigo (1958)
After French director Henri-Georges Clouzot had success with Diabolique, writers Boileau and Narcejac wrote the novel D’entres Les Morts with the intention that it be made into a film by Hitchcock. James Stewart is Scotty Ferguson, a police detective who retires after a colleague falls trying to rescue him. Coaxed out of retirement by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to watch his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) who appears to be acting under the influence of a dead relative, Scotty falls in love with Madeleine despite the intervention of his longtime friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). When Madeleine appears to kill herself by leaping from a mission tower, Scotty loses his mind, only to later encounter Judy Barton (Novak) whom he attempts to remake into his lost love.
The film features some of Hitchcock’s greatest shot making, including the now famous ‘track in zoom out’ shot of the mission tower steps as Scotty looks down dizzily (reused by many filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg in Jaws) and the amazing shot of Judy emerging from the fog of her apartment bathroom re-made as Madeleine. Vertigo is a story of obsession, longing and romance, as Scotty follows Madeleine through the hilly, beautiful streets of San Francisco.
Originally considered a misfire on its release, Vertigo was shown occasionally on TV until the early 70’s when, like the mysterious Madeleine, it disappeared. Hitchcock himself owned the rights to the film by this point and pulled it from public viewing until his death in 1980. With Vertigo unavailable, its critical fortunes began to rise as Robin Wood praised the film as a masterpiece and Donald Spoto called it Hitchcock’s greatest film in his 1977 book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. In 1983 the film was finally re-released to an eager public, which viewed it with a new eye.
Vertigo was also the first Hitchcock film to be fully restored in 1996, although restorers Katz and Harris were criticized for replacing some of the foley soundtrack with new sound effects. Finally, in 2012, Vertigo topped the Sight and Sound Critic’s Poll as the number one film of all time, surpassing Citizen Kane. I find the story of Vertigo a bit too unconvincing and convoluted to consider it to be even Hitchcock’s best, but there is no doubt that the beautiful visual style of the film, the glorious use of colors and the masterful mix of location and soundstage footage is Hitchcock working at his highest level.

3. Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
The richest period of Hitchcock’s filmmaking begins with his move to Paramount studios in 1953, where the first film he made was Rear Window. Taken from a short story by Cornell Woolrich, Rear Window is the story of photographer L.B. Jeffries who has broken his leg and, cooped up in his Greenwich Village apartment, comes to suspect his neighbor, Thorwald (Raymond Burr, made up to look like Hitchcock’s old boss, David Selznick) of murdering his invalid wife. Pressured by his attractive girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) to marry her and settle down as a fashion photographer, each of the windows that Jeffries looks into becomes in some ways a potential future for himself and Lisa: the sexually active newlyweds, the bland middle aged couple, the frustrated composer, the oddball sculptor, Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Torso the dancer and finally the Thorwalds themselves.
A meditation on voyeurism and living vicariously through the lives of others, Rear Window connected deeply with audiences on its initial release and became one of Hitchcock’s most popular and enduring films, eventually influencing several generations of filmmakers including Antonioni (Blow Up, 1967), Coppola (The Conversation, 1974) and DePalma (Body Double, 1984) as well as the more recent Disturbia (2007).
Featuring great supporting acting from Thelma Ritter as Jeffries’ sarcastic nurse (at one point she muses “Ah, we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms…what people ought to do is get outside of their houses and look in for a change!”) and Wendell Corey as the skeptical police detective, Rear Window features a great script by John Michael Hayes, who worked with Hitchcock on four of his finest films in the mid 1950’s before the two went their separate ways. The subject of a lengthy lawsuit over copyright of Woolrich’s original story, the film was pulled by Hitchcock from public viewing for over a decade before finally being re-released to acclaim with Vertigo in 1983. A definite must see for film buffs in general and Hitchcock buffs in particular.

2. North by Northwest (1959)
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman told Hitchcock that he wanted to write ‘the ultimate Hitchcock picture’ and, boy, he sure did. North by Northwest features another of Hitchcock’s falsely accused men on the run, this time Cary Grant as ad man Roger Thornhill, who has become entangled with some spies and is framed for the murder of a U.N. diplomat. Featuring James Mason as Phillip Vandamm, one of Hitchcock’s best and most evil bad guys, Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, the beautiful double agent and Martin Landau as Leonard, Vandamm’s dangerous sidekick,
North by Northwest functions both as an entertaining suspense chase picture as well as a deep meditation on the meaning of life, love and identity. Thornhill must confront all that is false about him, including his charming, glib exterior and his fascicle, meaningless life, to look down deep inside himself when faced by the danger and challenges posed in the course of the film, eventually coming out the other side as a fully realized human being, capable of love and commitment.
A reworking of The Thirty Nine Steps as well as Hitchcock’s less successful Saboteur (1942), North by Northwest became one of the director’s greatest and most influential films, as well as featuring his best known ‘MacGuffin’ – the microfilm with government secrets on it hidden in a sculpture purchased at a Chicago art auction. The director frequently climaxed his films with sequences in familiar or theatrical settings, and he originally conceived of the film by imagining characters running around across the Mount Rushmore monument (even considering the working title “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose”).
The film’s grand finale on Mount Rushmore does not disappoint, and North by Northwest ends up being the Hitchcock film that succeeds on every level. Made at MGM, where Hitchcock had a unique one picture deal while still under contract at Paramount, North by Northwest has never been out of circulation and photographed in beautiful Vista-vision, it is now available on blu-ray.

1. Psycho (1960)
The ultimate Hitchcock film? Perhaps the ultimate film…period?!? By the late 1950’s, Hitchcock realized that the competition was moving up on him, particularly producer/director William Castle, who made several low budget successes in the horror genre at that time. Deciding that even a relatively low budget horror film made by a truly talented filmmaker would be very successful, Hitchcock took Robert Bloch’s plot rich novel Psycho and, along with screenwriter Joseph Stefano, created a truly remarkable film.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) runs away from Phoenix with $40,000 stolen from her employer to be with her boyfriend, the cash strapped Sam Loomis (John Gavin). But a rainy detour to the Bates Motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins in a career defining role) ends up with Marion hacked to death in Hitchcock’s best known scene of all time, the shower murder. Who did it? Jealous Mother Bates? Hitchcock kept the now well-known surprise ending as much of a surprise as he could, and the brilliantly orchestrated publicity campaign ended up with a massive box office that ensured the director’s financial well-being as well as his career legacy.
Psycho destroyed and reconstructed so many film conventions that it is difficult to name them all here. Film techniques employed by Hitchcock in Psycho that still are used commonly today include the quick cutting of the shower sequence, the cutting between objective-subjective points of view in Lila’s approach to the Bates house, the camera moving from a birds eye point of view to the inside of a hotel room in the film’s opening, the extreme close up of Norman’s eye as he looks through a peephole at Marion undressing and the use of 50 mm lens to give a ‘realistic’ point of view. The meeting of Marion Crane and Norman Bates, though, is at the heart of the film and their parlor conversation that precedes the shower murder is one of Hitchcock’s most brilliantly constructed scenes, both on a level of script writing and shot making.
In Psycho, the dead rule the living, as Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) discovers as she walks through the Bates home, with each room getting creepier and creepier. Hitchcock hid a deep, dark secret in the fruit cellar, and when Lila discovers that secret, it shocked the film world to the core. Hitchcock noted it was a “fun” picture and a bit like taking the audience on a tour of the spook house at a carnival.
Nothing would ever be the same and, eventually, Psycho spawned two sequels in the 1980’s, a 1990 ‘prequel’, a 1998 ‘shot for shot’ remake by director Gus Van Sant and a recent A & E television series, Bates Motel. As an exercise in film technique and brilliant story-telling, Psycho has never been matched. The culmination of Hitchcock’s career, Psycho marked a commercial high point and, while some critic’s didn’t like the film on first release, most eventually came around to admiring the film.
Author Bio: Jim Davidson is a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University’s Radio-TV-Film Dept. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a video producer since 1987. Jim has written articles for Images Film journal and is currently working on a book about the movie Harold and Maude.

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