Monday, December 1, 2014

Hitchcock's 20 Best Films

Like most film lovers- serious or casual - I am a fan of the work of Alfred Hitchcock. For many of us, it's been an affair that has lasted decades; I first saw one of his films back in the 1970s in my teens and I was immediately hooked. I honestly can't remember which was the first of his movies I saw; I'm sure some of that comes from a blurring of memory with time. But this is also a credit to a phenomenal body of work; Hitchcock made 53 feature films in his life and I have seen 50 of them (one film, The Mountain Eagle, from 1926, has been lost forever except for a few stills). Of these 50, I am partial to more than 40 of them, but even in his lesser films - a relative term if there ever was one - I find moments of cinematic wonder.

Above all, Hitchcock was a master story teller, one of the best who ever made movies. On the surface level, there was the drama itself; the public knew and loved Hitchcock's work with greater zeal than almost any other director before or since. The stories were captivating, especially when the theme was that of the innocent man - here was an individual with whom we could identify.

The public also loved Hitchcock's style, as he could move us in ways that kept us riveted to what we were seeing on the screen. He was a visual director of the highest order, and many of his finest sound films can almost be watched with the soundtracks turned off, as the images were what grabbed us and shook up our emotions.Who didn't love the chase on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest or watching Jimmy Stewart's character frantically yelling at Grace Kelly's character to get out of that apartment in Rear Window? These were edge-of-your-seat moments and no one did them any better than Hitchcock.

But what separates Alfred Hitchcock from other story tellers was his probe into human behavior, be it a man obsessing over a woman or a criminal planning and carrying out every last detail in some lurid deed? The fact that most of the characters who were the focus of his films were "normal" on the surface level, only made the viewer identify with them more and realize that the story they were watching could play out in their own lives - or their neighbors'.

I could go on all day about what made Hitchcock's films resonate so much with me, but instead, let me give you my list of his greatest films. Any list is a reason for debate and I'm sure there were be many who read this and disagree with me as the specific order or even why a particular film was even listed while another was not included. That's fine - as with any great artist, passion is a personal thing that cannot be explained easily.

1) Vertigo (1958) - Although not the most typical of his films, this was Hitchcock's most personal work. The story of a police detective who becomes obsessed with a woman he saw kill herself, Vertigo takes us along a heartbreaking journey of love than cannot succeed. Powerful performances from James Stewart and Kim Novak (she was never better) along with a complex, at times, exceptional screenplay by Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel, combined with typical emotionally beautiful cinematography by Robert Burks and a haunting score by Bernard Herrmann.

There are several magnificently directed passages in the film, most notably the opening rooftop chase sequence along with the scene in the forest near the Pacific Ocean at Monterey, as well as the poignant episode at the Golden Gate Bridge when Stewart saves Novak. Above all, Vertigo is part dream, part nightmare and an unanswered question about our deepest desires and fantasies. Do we love someone for who they are or whom we want them to be? A highly original, deeply troubling work, this is an unforgettable film.

2) Notorious (1946) - A brilliant film on several levels, Notorious gives filmgoers a captivating mystery, exotic locations, romance and marvelous performances by its leading man and lady. If that isn't enough, this is also a look at the inner demons that trouble these two, a government agent (played by Cary Grant, in arguably his best performance) and a despondent woman (Ingrid Bergman, also outstanding) who seem destined for each other, yet must battle serious doubts about their life - will they ever be content with themselves or with each other? Excellent supporting work by Claude Rains and Leopoldine Konstantin, striking black-and-white photography by Ted Tetzlaff, and remarkably fluid direction from Hitchock (the crane shot that concludes with the shot of the wine cellar key in Bergman's hands is famous, but watch the final scene and how Hitchcock films the descent down the staircase and out of the house - just perfect!). One of the most notable combinations of a great story line imbued with the director's insight into the unbounded limits of love.

3) Rear Window (1954) - The purest of Hitchcock's treatments of pure cinema, Rear Window is perhaps the director's most satisfying suspense film. A photojournalist (James Stewart), who is laid up in his home thanks to a broken leg, entertains himself by watching the world outside through his camera lens. He spies on his neighbors day and night, much to the despair of his beautiful fiancĂ©e (Grace Kelly).

Transference of guilt was a favorite theme of Hitchcock and here it is explored as Kelly, in order to win Stewart's love, aids him in his adventure of voyeurism, as she puts herself in great personal harm. It is only then that Stewart sees her the full measure of her devotion for him. This sequence, when we the audience, watch through the eyes of Stewart (who is in turn, watching not with his own eyes, but through a lens) is primal in its emotional power as well as in its study of a relationship's unequal balance - he cannot appreciate her until she morphs her behavior into his. Tautly directed by Hitchcock, this is a thrilling to watch time and time again.

4) Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - Reportedly the director's favorite of his own works, this is a study of "twos" - a theme that would appear in many of Hitchcock's films. The pair at the center of this film are Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), suspected of murder, and his delightful niece Charlie (Teresa Wright). He has returned home to middle class America to be with his family, as this should provide a safe haven from the detectives that are pursuing him. Each Charlie admires the other, but their feelings change, once the truth is discovered.

Hitchcock succeeded in grabbing our attention in many of his films by featuring a villain, who instead of being ghoulish in appearance, was instead suave and quite charming; Uncle Charlie is one of the most prototypical of these characters and Cotten delivers a cool and refined performance. Imagine yourself being one of the members of his family - you wouldn't think for a second that he is capable of any wrongdoing.

Filmed on location in Santa Rosa, California, Shadow of a Doubt has a warm, comforting look to it at first, as this seems to be the all-American town where everyone is happy. It is in locales such as these - often in the brightness of the day - where evil can strike. Tapping into this fear was one of Hitchcock's most powerful themes; it's handled here in such a subtle fashion. This film, as with almost all of the director's works, is timeless in its message.

5) Strangers on a Train (1946) - Another study of "twos" as well as transference of guilt, this is classic Hitchcock. An idle playboy named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and a tennis player named Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meet by chance on a train; Anthony discusses murder and dreams up a scenario where each will kill someone in the other's life; he believes this the perfect crime, as there would be no apparent motive for the murders. Haines at first laughs this off, but soon realizes that Anthony is serious and must deal with the crazed wishes of this lunatic.

Featuring some of Hitchcock's most famous set pieces - the cross cutting between the tennis match and Anthony trying to retrieve a lighter, along with the merry-go-round sequence (both dazzling moments) - make for a highly entertaining film; you get the idea that Hitchcock thoroughly enjoyed making this movie. Expert editing by William Ziegler and a delightful script by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde ("I may be old fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law.") as well as a superb performance by Walker, as charismatic a villain as there ever was in Hitchcock's (or anyone's) films. Equally captivating for its unusual story as well as its troubling message of how easy it is to murder someone, this is a great film.

6) The Birds (1963) - I realize that some readers will wonder why I have rated this film so highly on my list, while others will question its inclusion at all. It is one of my favorite of Hitchcock's films and I think it is one of his most frightening - and at the same time - most hopeful films.

Technically brilliant - Donald Spoto in his exhaustive work The Art of Alfred Hitchock writes that the film featured 1400 shots, roughly twice what was normal for the director - this is a visual treat. The scene with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) sitting by the school playground, not realizing that slowly hundreds of birds are sitting on a jungle gym (how menacing Hitchcock makes a "playground" seem!) truly takes your breath away. Other unforgettable images include the terrible shot of a farmer who has had his eyes pecked out by birds who found their way into his home, and my favorite, the shot of various birds from above looking down on the havoc they have wreaked in the small town of Bodega Bay - literally a birds' eye view! (George Tomasini's editing throughout this film deserves a special mention.)

Sound is also of great importance in this eerie tale, as we hear the caws of birds on the attack as well as electronic reproductions of bird screeches. Two superb instances of the aural terror of this film happen during the attack on the school children, and the scene in the Brenner house at night when the power suddenly goes out and Melanie, Mitch, his young sister Cathy and his mother huddle together in darkness, forced to endure the terrible shrieks of the unseen birds just outside.

Hitchcock and his screenwriter Evan Hunter were smart not to give a reason as to why the birds were acting in such fashion - any explanation would lessen the overall effect. "It's the end of the world" utters one character at a restaurant in town and it may as well be for these characters, as the bird attacks are unpredictable. 

The answer then is for humans to turn to each other. Melanie and Mitch distrust each other as the film begins, but by the end, they will survive only if they care for each other and their loved ones. The ambiguity of the final image as they drive away from a landscape filled with thousands of birds is one of the most remarkable and innovative of any Hitchcock film.

7) I Confess (1952) - Arguably Hitch's most underrated film, it is sadly also one of his least known and certainly one of his least critically analyzed. A priest hears the confession of a man who admits to murder; in the Catholic Church, a priest cannot divulge what he has heard in the confessional, so he cannot help the police, who ironically, believe the priest is himself a suspect. Beautifully photographed in shimmering black-and-white hues by Robert Burks - I think this is one of the most beauitful jobs of black and white cinematography of all time, not only in terms of light and dark, but also in terms of the visual mood that is achieved. 

Hitchcock once again used the innocent man theme in this work, blending it with his insight into his Catholic upbringing. A moody, moving performance by Montgomery Clift as the priest - he is believable in every scene and an excellent supporting turn from Karl Malden as a police detective. The flashback sequence with Anne Baxter is a key to the background of this tale (Hitchcock mastered this story telling device a few years later in Vertigo); the slow-motion shot of Baxter walking down to meet Clift is remarkable.

8) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - There seems to be a wide split on which version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the better film - this one or the original 1934 work. I enjoy that film as well, but in almost every way, the remake is a far superior work, not only on a technical level, but also for its insight into the troubling relationship of the main couple, portrayed by James Stewart and Doris Day (Day was never better - certainly Hitchcock was able to tap into her insecurities, as she delivers a remarkable performance).

The couple's young son is kidnapped while on an overseas vacation, so the urgency of them rescuing their child has us on the edge of our seats, but the director delves further into their marital problems; the scene where Stewart informs Day that their son has been abducted has all of the emotional punch you would expect, thanks to both performers (Day is especially brilliant in this short scene) as well as Hitchcock's direction, which for much of the scene does not show both actors in the same shot, isolating their personal differences and emotional needs.

The famous 12-minue Albert Hall concert sequence is justifiably one of Hitchcock's most famous treatments of suspense - we hear the cantata performed by the orchestra, but there is no dialogue. The cross-cutting between Day, the assassins, the cymbal player who will sound the note that will trigger the assassination attempt and the closeups of the notes on the printed score is simply unforgettable and is a master class in how to drain every drop of emotion from the audience. Hitchcock was famous for remarking that suspense was not about a frenzied pace, but rather "slowing things down"; here he slows the action down to an agonizing pace that gives the viewer goosebumps on goosebumps. (The same sequence in the 1934 version is well done, but does not grip us, as it does in the remake.) This is a film that rewards you with repeated viewings, as it is so rich on many levels.

9) Psycho (1960) - Many will place this at a higher position on their own personal list of Hitchcock films; regardless, this is the most famous horror film of all time. There is, in reality, little I can add to the volumes written about this relatively inexpensive production - $800,000 as opposed to $4.3 million for his previous film, North by Northwest. 

There are so many of Hitchcock's themes that are explored in Psycho, especially transference of guilt as well as - in a strange way - the innocent man. Shocking - who can forget the moment when we first see the face of mother? - this is a descent into one particular hell for the characters as well as the audience.

10) Young and Innocent (1937) - So far, I have only listed Hitchcock's American films, but I do enjoy several of his British works. This, to the surprise of some, is my favorite of his British films. This is an early work that deals with many of the themes that Hitchcock would become familiar for in later years, such as the innocent man, bird imagery, random fortune (good and bad) as well as witty and sometimes dark dialogue at the dinner table. Co-stars Derrick de Marney and Nova Pilbeam have great chemistry together and there are some marvelous set pieces, especially the perilous happenings at an abandoned mine. The crane shot near the end of the film, which takes us from a wide shot of a ballroom up to the eyes of a drummer in a band is simply astounding. A similar shot would be implemented by Hitchcock in Notorious about a decade later; this shot is just as brilliant. Two years earlier, the director made The 39 Steps, which has received considerable praise. I find that Young and Innocent, which also has a plot device of a man and woman from opposite ends of the spectrum having to travel together to unravel the truth, is a superior work.

11) The Lady Vanishes (1937) - One of the reference points of Hitchcock's British era, this is a marvelously entertaining film, briskly paced and loaded with fun. The director would make several films where the action was primarily limited to one small area, as with Lifeboat (1943) and Rope (1948); here much of the story takes place on a passenger train. There is great charm throughout much of the film, especially in the scene that takes place in the luggage car, as the couple looking for the missing lady discovers all sorts of surprises, good and bad. There are no deep messages here, only a beautifully crafted tale that delivers on its title - why and where did the lady vanish?

12) The Wrong Man (1957) - Arguably Hitchcock's bleakest film and certainly one of his most disturbing, this work takes the innocent man theme to its limits. A jazz musician named Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda, perfectly cast) is accused of a crime he did not commit. Yet as the story unwinds, there are several individuals that name him as the guilty party. At the same time, his wife, troubled by these developments, is slowly losing her grip on reality. Robert Burks' black and white photography is appropriately somber, while Hitchcock's direction is understated, emphasizing the little details that are adding up to create chaos in one couple. The theme of randomness in Hitchcock's works - Balestrero is in this predicament thanks in great part to his physical resemblance to the real criminal - has rarely been better explored.

13) Rebecca (1940) - Although Hitchcock was somewhat hemmed in on this film by famed producer David O. Selznick, who was in post-production mode at the time on Gone With the Wind, the director turned in an engaging tale, full of the repression of a couple in love that do not really understand each other. The character of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, in a striking performance) is one of the most psychologically troubled of any in the director's films; Hitchcock often filmed her from low angles to give her a more dominating and threatening appearance. The director also brought out a stellar turn from Joan Fontaine (the second Mrs. de Winter); these two actresses represent the emotional weight of the story and truly carry the film. (Certainly these two performances are in contrast to the widely-believed theory that Hitchcock disdained actors, particularly women). 

Excellent production design led by Lyle Wheeler (the ocean cottage is particularly detailed and appropriately styled) along with affecting black-and-white photography from George Barnes. He would win an Academy Award for his work and the film itself was named as Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but Hitchcock was snubbed for the Oscar as Best Director, as the academy opted for John Ford for his work on The Grapes of Wrath. (Hitchcock would never win an Oscar as Best Director; the Academy finally gave Hitch an Oscar in 1968 - the Irving Thalberg Award, as sort of a lifetime achievement nod. Hitch famously accepted the award on stage, uttering two words, "Thank you," before walking off.)

14) The Lodger (aka: A Story of the London Fog) (1926) - Hitchock's strongest silent film and arguably the beginning of "the Hitchcock style" - emotionally and visually. This was his third feature film and in it, he kept the story simple, focusing on a lodger at a boarding house who is feared to be a serial murderer. There are several neat visual touches, most notably the use of a glass panel the Lodger walks on in one scene, emphasizing the sound of his footsteps to the his landlords below, giving him a more notorious edge. The innocent man theme is played out beautifully here and the final sequence is quite grand. Made more than 80 years ago, the film has held up beautifully.

15) North by Northwest (1959) - A superbly entertaining film with all sorts of Hitchcock themes, from the innocent man to the cool blonde to evil appearing in broad daylight. This is one of the best screenplays Hitchcock ever worked with - it was penned by Ernest Lehman - and he played this cross-country yarn to the hilt, taking us from the busy streets of New York City and Chicago to the wide-open prairies. One beautifully realized sequence after another from the amusing art auction to the crop-dusting scene to the unforgettable climax on Mount Rushmore - Cary Grant saving Eva Marie Saint by reaching out his hand, as she is ready to fall to her death, is a classic Hitchcock moment (and one he had used in films such as Young and Innocent and Saboteur). Great fun, classy production and perfectly toned Hitchcockian performances by many, especially Grant, Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau. For this work, Hitchock was in the midst of one of his strongest creative periods of his life - this film was preceded by Vertigo and followed by Psycho and then The Birds and his self-assurance was clearly sky high.

16) Frenzy (1970) - After the disappointments of Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), Hitch returned to peak form with this story of a crazed killer who strangles women with his tie. The film was the director's return to England after thirty years and the experience must have lifted his spirits, as he turned in a dazzling film, worthy of his best work in the 1940s and '50s. Again the innocent man is a major theme in this work, but here, that individual is not particularly sympathetic; rather the killer is a charming man, one with wit and flair (a la the character of Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train). Although most of the violence is off-screen, a common approach with Hitchcock, he did show us one murder in brutal detail (resulting in volumes of text by dozens of authors about Hitchcock's supposed misogynist traits). An excellent screenplay by playwright Anthony Shaffer with one of the best final lines in any film; "Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie."

17) Sabotage (1936) - A story of emerging from the dark into the light - finding the good amidst the evil in our lives. The plot revolves around a theater owner who has somewhat ruefully agreed to join in a conspiracy to cripple the British government - will his wife learn the truth about her husband and what will she do to stop him? The theme of darkness is explored in great detail; from the opening blackout to the final ugly murder. The sequence of the young boy unknowingly carrying a bomb set to detonate aboard a crowded public bus is extremely well directed and edited, although Hitchcock forever apologized about letting the child be killed. Notable performances by Silvia Sidney, who personifies common sense and Oscar Homolka, a simple man who is tripped up by his greed. The unusual ending - a murder is forgiven through a series of circumstances - was quite daring for its time.

18) Marnie (1964) - A highly debated Hitchock effort, as many find it a troubled film, while others (myself included) think this is an excellent work on several levels. A young woman (Tippi Hedren in the title role) is a kleptomaniac who also has a great fear of emotional contact with men. A wealthy businessman named Mark Rutland (Sean Connery in a typically charming and relaxed performance), falls in love with her, despite knowing that she robbed his company's funds. He desperately wants to cure her of her problems, even going so far as to marrying her, clearly against her wishes. 

Pschyoanalysis is used to explain Marnie's behavior; in visual terms, Hitchcock uses red dots or patterns that fill the screen, representing her troubling memories of a childhood incident. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen fashioned two long dialogue sequences between Mark and Marnie in order for him to try and find a solution for her anxieties. The free association scene on the boat during their honeymoon is very well written, as we learn how troubled Marnie clearly is in the company of a man ("Oh God, somebody please help me!," she screams.)

While the film does suffer from a long, drawn-out conclusion as well as some rather sloppy rear projection work (watch the scene of Marnie riding her horse late in the film), Hitchcock does deliver with many beautifully directed sequences, most notably the one when Marnie comes into Mark's office to work on a Saturday; the moment the tree crashes through the window is a highly charged one. The brief safe robbery, told with no dialogue and largely no sound, is textbook Hitchcock.

While slightly flawed, this is one of Hitchcock's most passionate films, one in which Tippi Hedren delivers a remarkable performance that was somewhat unexpected after her rather mannered debut in The Birds. Robert Burks, in his final film for Hitchock, turned in his usual superior job, instilling the film with deeply saturated hues, while at other times using filters to convey the troubled emotional state of the title character.

19) Blackmail (1929) - In this film, the first sound picture from Hitchcock, the director displayed marvelous creativity in both aural and visual terms. A young woman has a disagreement with her boyfriend, a detective, at a restaurant; she leaves with another man, who takes her up to his apartment. He then forces himself upon her; in self-defense, she kills the man with a knife. Hitchcock cleverly shows us her state of mind the next few hours, as she is deeply haunted by her experience. In one of the film's most famous moments, he alters the soundtrack in a brief scene the next morning, so that the woman only seems to hear the word "knife" in another woman's monologue. The young woman is clearly shaken up and drops the knife she has in her hand to cut a loaf of bread. 

The director also displayed his German expressionist approach, often filming the woman and the detective in shadow; other images have them making their way alongside shadow-covered walls. The overall effect is rather chilling and even if the filmmaking is not as technically sharp as later films from Hitchcock, his story telling is first-rate. 

20) Foreign Correspondent (1940) - While the first 25 minutes of this film are a pleasant, if rather ordinary introduction to the principal characters and the plot, things really get going after that, beginning with the murder of the diplomat on the rainy streets of Amsterdam and the pursuit amidst dozens of onlookers holding umbrellas (a visually stunning moment). The chase takes us to the windmill sequence, eerily troubling in its simplicity, as the main character, an American reporter (Joel McCrea) notices one of the windmills turning an opposite direction than the others.

This is more of a mystery than a typical suspense film for Hitchcock and it is a bit of a propaganda effort for the American government for the upcoming war (especially the epilogue, complete with "The Star Spangled Banner"), but the director glides us through this rousing tale with great finesse and charm. The airplane sequence near the end of the film, is a technical and emotional triumph.


Other recommended films:

Rope (1948) - Hitchcock's famous experiment in long takes. The director filmed this story, based on a stage play, in ten-minutes takes - ten minutes being the length of a reel of film at that time. Thus no editing in this film, except at the end of a reel, when the camera focused on a wall or the back of a man's suit and then cut to the same shot to start the new reel. This approach was contrary to Hitchcock's belief in editing and while there are certainly a few scenes that would have been better with some cross-cutting, this is still a very effective film, especially in the tone of this somber work (the story is about a thrill-killing along the lines of Leopold and Loeb). Very fine work from James Stewart and Farley Granger and an especially graceful performance from John Dall as one of the killers.

Under Capricorn (1949) - Immediately after Rope, Hitchcock continued his fascination with long takes in this film; the most beautiful of these is near the opening when Adare (Michael Wilding) enters the house of Flusky (Joseph Cotten); the seven-minute shot takes us through several rooms of the house and into the dining room and is remarkably fluid. 

The scene near the end of the film where Bergman uncovers a deadly secret in her bedroom is beautifully handled by Hitchcock, both with the camera as well as on the soundtrack, as we learn of the ugly truth amidst a powerful thunderstorm. Although a bit slow moving at times, this is a fascinating work, better than Hitchcock and many critics give it credit for.

The Paradine Case (1947) - Hitchcock was famously unhappy with the final result of this film, which was the last time he worked with producer David O. Selznick (when Hitchcock was asked what the "O" in Selznick's name stood for, he replied, "Nothing"). The film is a bit talky, yet the director handled the lengthy courtroom sequence beautifully, emphasizing the strict, harsh geometry of the British trial setting and how the victim is put in an isolated position in the courtroom. Gregory Peck as the defending attorney is quite good throughout the film, especially in the scene when he admits his shortcomings in dealing with his client. There are also some fine acting turns from Charles Laughton, Ethel Barrymore and Leo G. Carroll, while Alida Valli as Mrs. Paradine was fine as a mysterious woman who may or may not have killed her husband.

Spellbound (1945) - The thought process of why someone committed a crime was often at the heart of Hitchcock's films; this is his most overt look at how psychology (Freudian in this instance) examines someone's behavior. Gregory Peck portrays a doctor who falls in love with a fellow physician at a mental hospital. But all is not as it seems - a typical Hitchcock theme - as Peck's character is, in reality, not a doctor, but someone with a hidden secret from his past. Although uneven and not entirely successful (the unveiling of the plot takes too much time), this is a very watchable and thoughtful film; the dream sequence created by Salvador Dali is a nice touch, though not as intriguing as one might expect (apparently some of the sequence was deleted - perhaps it was too extreme in its vision). Nice supporting performances from Leo G. Carroll as the head of the asylum and Michael Chekov as the charming elderly doctor.

Topaz (1969) - This has been roundly criticized as a failure, and it is ultimately a disappointment from Hitchock. Yet a good deal of the film is very well done, especially the sequences in New York City at the hotel and at the florist shop. The image of Juanita (Karin Dor) falling to the floor, as she is murdered by her Cuban military lover Parra (John Vernon), is one of the director's most visually creative moments. The first and last twenty minutes of this film are a bit sub-par and there is much too much explanatory dialogue, but Hitchcock does treat us to some memorable images.

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