Debates about Alfred Hitchcock have been raging for decades. Was he a cruel genius who treated his actors like cattle, torturing his icy blondes' performances out of them? (Some, like established movie star Grace Kelly, handled him better than others.) Some critics prefer the more whimsical British Hitchcock, tongue tucked in cheek, although his first breakout hit "The Lodger" (1927) was a sign of things to come.
Clearly, Hitchcock learned from early Hollywood mentor David O. Selznick, who taught him a great deal, points out David Thomson in "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film." Over 50 years, the filmmaker always had visual flair and a distinct style, and knew how to implicate audiences in his dark, often opaque characters. Cary Grant, especially, excelled at playing charismatic men whose motives and true nature were open to interpretation, from "Suspicion" to "Notorious."
Hitchcock was a true artist in the sense that he often pursued his muse even when projects without obvious commercial promise were not supported by the studios. But he always balanced the occasional experimental flop with plenty of mainstream hits. He didn't care that his obsession with genre elements-- that are so prized as commercially "safe" today--were not approved by the Hollywood establishment, which deemed them B movies. He proved the suits wrong over and over again, because he understood better than any filmmaker perhaps until Steven Spielberg what audiences really want. Clearly, he enjoyed shocking and frightening them.
And more than most filmmakers, Hitchcock took into his control the development and production of his stories, and embraced television as a medium, which helped, along with his film cameos, to create a persona who was recognizable by the public. One of the earliest to instinctively understand the power of branding, "Hitch" became the most famous director who ever lived. He had an instinct for self-promotion, putting himself in his own movie trailers. He created a wry comedic persona --the director who winks at the audience as he sets out to scare the bejeezus out of them.
Do we defend Hitchcock's use of rear screen projection until the bitter end, when it was no longer in vogue? I remember laughing at the fake road curves in "Family Plot." But all in all, that stubborn habit was a minor transgression.
As a restored version of Hitchcock's voyeuristic classic "Rear Window" returns to circulation, the TOH gang ranks the top 25 Hitchcock films. Yes, we leave out some amazing movies. Feel free to tell us where we went wrong--especially in our choice of Number One. Do we go along with Sight and Sound's consensus choice? Read it and weep. --Anne Thompson
Napoleon had Waterloo; the Red Army hockey team had Lake Placid; The Beatles had “Mr. Moonlight”; George Clooney has “Monuments Men.” Everybody’s got something to hide and, for Hitchcock, it’s this hammily acted courtroom-drama-meets-psychological thriller starring Gregory Peck ("Spellbound"), Alida (“The Third Man”) Valli, Ann Todd, Charles Laughton and Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll, all directed by someone calling himself Alfred Hitchcock. In actuality, Hitchcock was at the end of his contract with David O. Selznick (who big-footed it all over the production), and really just wanted out. As will anyone who sits down to watch the results.—John Anderson
One of Hitchcock’s experiments in the use of a single setting can feel a bit stagey if downright corny occasionally when each survivor of a sinking ship who are forced to share the title craft must represent a slice of humanity, from the religious black man Joe (Canada Lee) and William Bendix’s dumb-lug Gus to Walter Slezak’s callous Nazi Willi to Heather Angel’s unstable woman clinging to her dead baby. But it’s Tallulah Bankhead as cynical reporter Connie with her marvelously deep-throated line readings (“Dying together's even more personal than living together”) and glamorous accessories that float away one by one that keeps this dramatic rig afloat. The wartime premise allows Hitchcock to forthrightly address the issue of God’s role in humanity’s fate. Meanwhile, Connie often surprises both her boat mates and the audience with her spontaneous actions, such as when she kisses Gus before his leg must be amputated or reapplies her lipstick as a kind of cosmetic life preserver.
Just when most fans had given up hope of Sir Alfred ever delivering another thriller that merited goose bumps, along came a darkly nasty late-life delight – his second to last movie. This variation on the familiar theme of a man (then-rising-star Jon Finch) wrongly accused of a crime as a so-called “Necktie Strangler” stalks London was his first British production in ages and took advantage of the era’s loosening of graphic restraint. Overlook the stodgier aspects of the plotting and instead savor how Hitchcock portrays twisted appetites both carnal (psychopathic fruit vendor Barry Foster sexually attacks his female prey before choking them) and culinary (Alec McCowen’s police inspector is forced to dine on his wife’s horrifically inedible gourmet creations). There are numerous brilliantly staged scenes often employing silence. But the sequence that gets me every time is when Foster realizes that the victim he stuffed into a potato sack and tossed on a truck filled with spuds is clutching his signature tie pin. His desperate attempt to yank it from the clutches of a stiff corpse that involves breaking a finger is macabrely echoed in a parallel shot of McCowen’s wife snapping a breadstick.
This black-and-white thriller adapted by Maxwell Anderson from his own novel "The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero" closely mirrors the real-life story of an innocent man wrongly accused of armed robbery. Hitchcock swears "every word is true." While that may be true, the film's bold and impressionistic style gives "The Wrong Man" the quality of a dream. Henry Fonda conveys mountains of disquiet and frustrations as a string bassist caught in a Kafkaesque legal merry-go-round whose desperate plan to borrow against his wife's (Vera Miles) life insurance goes hideously awry and lands him in jail. Hitchcock's prisons and courtrooms crawl with shadows and silhouettes, with composer Bernard Herrmann pulling back on his usual musical flair to create a musical score whose subtly feels subversive for a 1956 film. In retrospect, this was likely too grim and depressing a noir for the masses. (It was a flop at the time, but has since been critically reappraised.) But from a distance, its jaded, world-weary spirit feels apropos of the here and now. —Ryan Lattanzio
Watch: Martin Scorsese Talks Hitchcock, 'Taxi Driver,' and Story vs. Plot with Jon Favreau
One of the more iconic sequences among Hitchcock’s films is this wartime thriller’s climactic chase atop the Statue of Liberty, with Teutonic-accented evildoer Norman Lloyd trying unsuccessfully to escape Robert Cummings. (And who can blame him? Cummings is among the least convincing actors ever; Lloyd may have thought the condition contagious.) This is transitional Hitchcock: His first U.S. production, “Rebecca,” was really English; “Saboteur,” with a “story” by the director (and a screenplay co-written by Dorothy Parker) is really “The 39 Steps” without the throwaway bon mots and general air of sophistication. Instead of the relatively edgy Madeleine Carroll and the great Robert Donat, Hitchcock has Cummings and Priscilla Lane as well as a dramatic conflict he would revisit his entire career – that of the wrongly accused against an only vaguely defined force of evil. In “Saboteur,” it’s all a bit obvious.
—John AndersonWatch: Saul Bass's Most Iconic Title Sequences, from Scorsese to Hitchcock
20. "The Man Who Knew Too Much"(1956)
The master of suspense’s remake of his 1934 British thriller featured one of his favorite collaborators, James Stewart, as an American doctor on an overseas trip whose young son is kidnapped by an international terrorist ring involved in an assassination plot. The foreign villains here are sadly one-note. But the standout performance comes from an unexpected source: Musical comedy star Doris Day in a rare dramatic role. She manages to impressively break the mold of the impassive Hitchcock blonde by nakedly expressing the agony of a mother whose child has been snatched away. She is the instrument that drives the film’s terrific centerpiece where a crashing cymbal during a concert performance is the intended signal for the killer to shoot his target. And the lovely sequence where Day serenades her child as he prepares for bedtime with the Oscar-winning song “Que Sera, Sera” is bookended by a reprise of the tune that she bravely performs at an embassy to alert her hidden-away child that she is near. —Susan Wloszczyna
Read Review: 'The Hitchcock 9' Silent Film Festival
Grace Kelly stabbing her attempted murderer with a pair of scissors is right up there with the "Psycho" shower slash as one of Hitchcock's most technically impressive sequences. A tawdry thriller of adultery and blackmail, "Dial M" offers Kelly the plum role of a socialite wife whose jealous husband (Ray Milland), learning of her affair with a writer (Robert Cummings), coerces a criminal into offing her. But of course, everything goes magnificently awry. It's pure entertainment, less freighted with the Freudian clues and codes of Hitchcock's later films, but nonetheless hair-splittingly suspenseful. —
This is one of the most classically Hitchcockian of the recently released "Hitchcock 9" silents in its criminal setting, motifs, and use of suspense -- not to mention the first use of a chase sequence around a famous location, in this instance the British Museum. ("Blackmail" also exists in a part-talkie version, in which, bizarrely, the Czech actress Anny Ondra mouthed words voiced just off-camera by Brit actress Joan Barry.) The BFI's glowing restoration (from the original negative) is a revelation. —Meredith Brody
Two of Hitchcock’s films were in the running for Best Picture in 1941 – the relatively stodgy “Rebecca” (which won) and this charmer, about an American reporter in Europe, stumbling onto the launch pad of World War II. It’s funny how the film’s star, Joel McCrea, has faded from public consciousness in a way that, say, Cary Grant hasn’t: McCrea had Grant-like versatility with both comedy and drama, could summon up the folksiness of a Gary Cooper and was as virile as any star in Hollywood. As Johnny Jones – redubbed “Huntley Haverstock” by a publisher (Harry Davenport) who thinks it sounds better – he suggests Tom Sawyer, Secret Agent: When a Dutch diplomat (Oscar nominee Albert Bassermann) is shot on the rainy steps of a cathedral-like conference hall in Amsterdam, it provides for one of Hitchcock’s iconic moments – a crane shot that shows, not the fleeing assassin, but the ripple he causes through a crowd of umbrellas -- and sets Huntley on the trail of agents intent on setting the world aflame. “Foreign Correspondent’ may not be better than “Rebecca,” but god it’s a lot more fun. --John Anderson
16. "Suspicion" (1941)
In the mold of “Notorious” and “Rebecca,” this relationship mystery noir (based on a popular novel) hinges on the idea that shrinking violet Joan Fontaine does not trust her charming rake of a new husband, Cary Grant, who’s ambitious to be more than he is. Is it her fanciful imagination that runs away with her, as she uncovers his gambling and other secrets, or is her gut telling her to be afraid, very afraid? Hitchcock snakes us through the ebbs and flows of their evolving emotions, manipulating us at every hairspin turn. Fontaine won the only Best Actress Oscar for the under-appreciated Hitchcock, who was nominated for five Oscars but had to settle for the Irving Thalberg honorary Oscar in 1968. —Anne Thompson
Primo English Hitchcock except for a bit of sluggishness aboard the train, where Margaret Lockwood tries to find the tweedy English lady whom she’s sure she met (Dame May Whitty), and who shared her tea before disappearing into the gaping maw of international railroad-traveling espionage. It’s a sterling example of what distinguishes early and late Hitchcock -- Michael Redgrave, for one thing, as the glibly charming musicologist whose skepticism about Lockwood’s story gradually evaporates and who is motivated as much by romance as mystery. The pacing, too, feels imported: It’s almost half an hour before Hitchcock bothers to get everyone on that train, during which time we are thoroughly acquainted with the characters and their supreme self-interest (which, rather than pure evil, is the on-board source of malignancy). Noteworthy among the cast are Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as the comically effete cricket fans Caldicott and Charters, who conspire to keep the mystery train moving, lest they miss their match in Manchester.
14. "To Catch a Thief" (1955)
"To Catch a Thief" is Hitchcock on holiday. Set against the glittering vistas of the French Riviera, Cary Grant and glam Grace Kelly are irresistibly charming in this airy, sun-soaked romantic caper. Grant plays a retired jewel thief implicated in a new string of robberies who's out to prove his innocence, while Kelly plays the daughter of a moneyed American family in possession of some of the Riviera's most coveted jewels. She loves a little danger, throwing herself into the mystery while looking fabulous in Edith Head's now legendary gold masquerade gown, among other knockout dresses. (The couple banter over cold chicken parts; fireworks go off after they kiss.) Dashing leading man Grant had already logged successful pairings with Hitchcock on "Suspicion" and "Notorious" before his iconic turns in "To Catch a Thief" and 1959's "North by Northwest." —Ryan Lattanzio
Watch: Every Hitchcock Cameo in One Video
Though the efforts of The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, among others, have gone some way to reclaiming “Marnie” from the ash heap of Hitchcock’s misfires, this portrait of a damaged con artist (Tippi Hedren) and the man (Sean Connery) who marries her remains one of the director’s most slippery, challenging works. With wild splashes of crimson and Bernard Herrmann’s lush, piercing score, it turns up the four-hankie melodrama to a full boil—and, intermittently, allows it to curdle. Nevertheless, “Marnie,” anchored by Hedren’s stricken performance, is a dauntless attempt to render psychosexual trauma in the syntax of film form; even when it stumbles, Hitchcock's obsessed near-masterpiece bristles with bold, expressionist fervor. —Matt Brennan
Hitchcock gave several leading men the best roles of their careers. Cary Grant was at his most suave as an ad man mistaken for a secret agent who has to live by his wits to survive assault from unexpected quarters, including a cropduster in a cornfield, one of the most famous of Hitchcock's bravura set pieces. Grant also memorably makes love to Eva Marie Saint on a train...and clambers over craggy presidents at Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock had always wanted to shoot there, and developed the convoluted spy thriller with scriptwriter Ernest Lehman (recommended by composer Bernard Herrmann, whose score starts off the movie against iconic Saul Bass titles), who set out to deliver the ultimate Hitchcock movie. And so he did. At least, it may be the most entertaining.
Hitchcock had already produced such laudable efforts as "The Lodger" (1927), "Blackmail" (1929), and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934) when he directed "The 39 Steps," an unbalancing act of the first order. This frothy, witty caper, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll as unhappy allies in a race to secure military secrets, is essentially a feature-length MacGuffin, but it dances along with such fleet intelligence that the narrative is almost superfluous. Full of twisty reversals and canny humor—it's certainly funnier than the director's "black comedy," "The Trouble with Harry" (1955)—the film is an early example of Hitchcock's light touch, constructed with brilliant, barbed economy. By the time Donat's Richard Hannay stumbles into giving a rousing political speech, in which he longs for a world "where everyone gets a square deal and a sporting chance," "The 39 Steps" seems no less significant than a premonition: it may well be Hitchcock's first classic. —Matt Brennan
His first film under producer David O. Selznick, whose entertainment-mongering sensibilities clashed with the Englishman's perverse streak, was this Daphne du Maurier gothic melodrama. Judith Anderson turns in a wicked performance as Mrs. Danvers, the spinster housekeeper obsessed with the dead wife of her aristocratic master Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier). In line to become the second Mrs. de Winter, Joan Fontaine's heroine suffers Danvers' psychological torture and is nearly pushed into madness (probably not unlike Hitch's many lady muses) and suicide. In black-and-white, "Rebecca" casts a ghostly spell even if its freakier side, including the implications of Danvers' all but sexual fixation on a dead woman, was tempered by the Production Code. But one of the pleasures of viewing Hitchcock in the 21st century is that such sly peculiarities survive anyway. —Ryan Lattanzio
Hitchcock's first Technicolor outing stars John Dall and pretty boy Farley Granger as Brandon and Phillip, two bored and indifferent pals who strangle a former classmate in their apartment almost as a lark, and then stage a party in their apartment for the victim's friends and fiancee. All the while, the corpse stiffens in a chest at the center of the room. Enter the quizzical Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), a former mentor and philosophe who gave them the idea of killing as an intellectual exercise. Long before "Birdman" spread its wings, Hitchcock stitched together ten takes to create the illusion of real-time, pushing the state of cinematic art at a time when cameras only held up to ten minutes of film. In the famous Truffaut interviews, Hitchcock wrote off the film's technique as a "stunt" and a "gimmick"—but we should interpret this as the director's typically self-effacing refusal to let the cat out of the bag. The homosexual subtext of Brandon (Dall) and Phillip's (Granger) relationship has, since the passing of Hays Code-era 1948, been accepted by the cognoscenti as the true text of a film that is everything about male anxiety and dread. —
These days, mass killings by assailants whose deadly intentions go unnoticed by friends and relatives are tragically commonplace. While Hitchcock’s films often relied on the theme that appearances are deceiving, few of his titles strike as close to home and seem as relevant as this unveiling of the dark underbelly of seemingly wholesome small-town USA. Teresa Wright is highly relatable as Charlotte, a teenager dissatisfied with her middle-class existence who idolizes her charismatic and worldly Uncle Charlie (charmingly monstrous Joseph Cotten). She feels as if they are psychically connected--she's nicknamed Little Charlie in his honor-- and is looking forward to his visit. But when he starts to hide newspaper clippings about the “Merry Widow Murderer,” she suspects that he might be behind the crimes. The noirish thriller is a bit like Nancy Drew detective story, but with an undercurrent of an incestuous attraction between the two main characters, as young Charlie loses her innocence while driven to confirm her uncle’s terrible deeds despite putting herself in peril. Hitchcock himself considered “Shadow of a Doubt” to be one of his favorites, no doubt partly because it carries his use of doubles to a transfixing extreme. —Susan Wloszczyna
7. “Spellbound” (1945)
First-rate Hitchcock and a direct precursor to “Vertigo,” a tense thriller about psychology and murder, abetted by its setting in a hospital for the insane; the fragile performance by Gregory Peck as the distinguished but deeply troubled Dr. Anthony Edwards; and that celebrated sequence designed by Salvador Dali, intended to illustrate the slalom-like process of Ballantyne’s mind. Hitchcock’s foray into surrealism is a tickle, of course, but we still prefer that shot of the pistol from the villain’s POV -- turning, turning, and finally firing into the camera. —John Anderson
6. "Strangers on a Train" (1951)
Bookended by first- and last-act fairground sequences—the former, with its lurid silhouettes in the Tunnel of Love, is a one of the director’s finest set pieces—“Strangers on a Train” hurtles toward its conclusion with the speed of a runaway carousel. In between, playboy Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) pursues handsome tennis player and reluctant accomplice Guy Haines (Farley Granger) with lascivious abandon, criss-crossing his repressed desires with his plan for the perfect murder. If Bruno’s instinct for predation at times suggests Hollywood’s long history of homophobic stereotypes, however, the shiver of illicit energy between Bruno and Guy electrifies a film that is otherwise a model of cool control. Until the climax sees the conspiracy spin off its axis, that is, in an explosion of action to which any studio tentpole would do well to aspire. —Matt Brennan
5. "The Birds" (1963)
No one will ever know how cruel Hitchcock really was to Tippi Hedren, as he forced the poised but inexperienced model-turned-actress to fend off live attacking birds for a week until she collapsed in a doctor's care. She has accused the "evil and deviant" Hitchcock of sexual harassment that would be against the law today, and of making, then ruining, her career after she resisted his advances. (He referred to her only as "the girl"). Hedren's elegant French-twisted city prankster Melanie Daniels in "The Birds" is the iciest of Hitchcock's blondes, so when flocks of ravens, gulls, crows, sparrows and pigeons turn against the inhabitants of a California seaside village, she gives way to harrowing vulnerability. She flees a glass phone booth and eventually holes up at the home of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), another man who defers to his mother (Jessica Tandy). Hitchcock broke the rules again by shooting this terrifying movie with no score. We hear the wind and the batting of wings and the sounds of beaks hitting flesh. The nature vs. man trope is all to familiar now, but it wasn't then. --Anne Thompson
Read an Excerpt from Andy Warhol's Delightfully Morbid 1974 Hitchcock Interview
4. "Rear Window" (1954)
“Lisa.” Flick. “Carol.” Flick. “Freemont.” Flick. My three favorite words in the cinema come courtesy of Grace Kelly, as her intrepid socialite turns on the lights in the opening minutes of “Rear Window.” Swooning and stylish, as urbane as Franz Waxman’s hot-to-trot score, Lisa’s first exchange with her laid-up lover, injured photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), sets the tone for Hitchcock’s voyeuristic mystery from the start. Constrained to a single room, the director fashions a world in miniature, peering in on newlyweds and lonelyhearts alike with an assist from Jeff's long, thick... lens. Weaving romance, suspense, and even terror from the ambient sights and sounds of the distant city, all leavened by Thelma Ritter's quippy nurse, "Rear Window" emerges as a paean to the power, and the perversity, of looking, a reminder of why we fell for the movies in the first place. —Matt Brennan
"Psycho" is so embedded in the culture that it's hard to imagine how radical and strange it was 55 years ago. It was as though Steven Spielberg had gone indie rogue, breaking every rule in the canon as he went. In the opening shot the camera as voyeur swoops into a hotel room to watch a half-naked Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) trysting with a married man (John Gavin). We trustingly follow Marion as she steals money, buys a car and checks into the Bates Motel, where we and taxidermist Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) watch through a keyhole as Marion undresses. Hitchcock's go-to composer Bernard Herrmann reaches new heights of screeching terror in the ultimate quick-cutting murder sequence to be forever known as The Shower Scene, as our leading lady is killed off before the film's halfway mark. Hitchcock manipulated time, space and the viewer, and critics didn't know what to make of it.Generations of cinephiles have studied those shots. Of all the imitative horror films that have followed, none have topped "Psycho." Nor will they.--Anne Thompson
2. "Vertigo" (1958)
It's this simple: If you don't like "Vertigo," you don't like the movies. In Hitchcock's mesmeric, fantastical 1958 mystery—which still sits proudly atop Sight and Sound's Greatest 50 Films of All Time poll, dethroning the long-reigning "Citizen Kane"—chilly blonde Kim Novak dazzles in dual roles as Jimmy Stewart's acrophobic Scottie prunes and preens her into the ultimate fetish object. This remains Hitchcock's most palpably perverse picture, thrumming with all kinds of strangeness we never quite grasp—like the last image of a nun tolling the bells of the mission tower as Judy plunges to her doom. Hitchcock pioneers the narrative bait-and-switch that drives many contemporary thrillers, by offering at first the chintzy ghost story yarn of is-she-or-isn't-she-possessed Madeleine, only to deflower the story and reveal a deeper psychological tale of disguise and desire.--Ryan Lattanzio
1. "Notorious" (1946)
Hitchcock's films are often psychologically complex and mordantly funny, but they're rarely deeply romantic. "Notorious" is a dark World War II spy thriller written by Ben Hecht in which intelligence man Devlin (Cary Grant) persuades sexily carefree Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a group of Nazis in South America. As the duo fall in love --and enjoy one of the screen's longest kisses--Alicia feels good about serving a higher purpose. But things get muddled when old family friend Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) proposes to Alicia. She and Devlin are both conflicted about doing the right thing for each other and for their country, and they send mixed messages. So she goes ahead and puts herself in great danger. In a stunning sequence, Devlin comes to a lavish party where he and Alicia, who has stolen the wine cellar key from her husband, explore the cellar and embrace to make Alexander think that Devlin is just making advances to her. Alexander's mother divines the truth, and starts to poison Alicia. Devlin has to figure out how to save her. Grant, Bergman and Rains are all at the top of their persuasive powers. And so is Hitchcock.--Anne Thompson