|Cover of The Lodger|
|Cover of The Trouble with Harry [Region 2]|
Tags: Alfred Hitchcock, Blackmail, Dial M for Murder, Foreign Correspondent, Frenzy, I Confess, Lifeboat, north by northwest, notorious, psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca, Rope, Sabotage, Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, spellbound, Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, the birds, The Lady Vanishes, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry, To Catch a Thief, Torn Curtain, vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock
He’s the only film director we recognize from a sketch of his silhouette. A monthly pulp magazine of mystery stories with the licensed use of his name is STILL being published after fifty-six years. His technical innovations with the camera and in the editing room have become absorbed into the basic language of cinema. His persistent themes of paranoia and dread (usually with a soupcon of dark humor) were essential to developing the notion of a film director as an author. Audiences love him, critics love him, even the French love him. He is the “master of suspense” and the closest thing film has to a William Shakespeare.
He is Alfred Hitchcock and if you haven’t seen a lot of his movies, here’s the article and the marching orders you’ve been waiting for.
I’m counting down his top 50 features because it’ a nice round number. I fully embrace, however, any angry comments about leaving out the films with missing reels, German versions, silent versions of talkies, French language propaganda shorts, episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or early movies that exist only in the great Trim Bin in the Sky. (This is in addition to, I hope, sanctimonious ire concerning my order and rationale behind certain choices.) Keep in mind that a lot of the early ones you never heard of are free and legal on sites like archive.org.
50 – “Jamaica Inn” (1939)
At the back end of this list we’ll find some pictures that are dull or that may find difficulty engaging a modern audience. This, however, is the only Hitchcock film I flat-out despise. Part of that is because it should be good. I mean: Charles Laughton as an uppercrust dandy secretly running a smuggling ring and Maureen O’Hara in her first major role, all set in the cold, rocky, gaslit world of Daphne Du Maurier’s 19th Century Cornwall (that little tip on the bottom of England that has its own weird language.) And yet, somehow, it isn’t just dull, it is annoyingly slow and tone-deaf (apparently Laughton and Hitchcock disagreed on everything.) “Jamaica Inn” is important if for no other reason to remind us that even geniuses can make a disaster now and again. (It was, however, a big box office winner.)
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
49 – “Easy Virtue” (1928)
While the scenario is based on a Noel Coward play, this is a silent film so you get none of his crackling wit. What you do get is a twisted lecture on how women in polite society should behave. Despite our lead’s innocence, she is divorced on grounds of adultery, then later punished for keeping this a secret from her second husband. If I were in charge of the world I’d have Guy Maddin do a remake starring Kim Kardashian.
Hitchcock Cameo: 21 minute mark, walking past a tennis court.
48 – “The Farmer’s Wife” (1928)
Hardly loaded with suspense, this droll silent film details the matchmaking follies of a wealthy widower. There are some nice comic bits as well as a very British fox hunt. Fun costumes, too, plus the butler makes a lot of wacky faces. Find a clean print and you’ll be surprised how watchable it is.
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
47 – “Waltzes From Vienna” (1933)
Not just a talkie, but a singie! Hitchcock all but disowned this for-hire gig in his interviews with Francois Truffaut (collected into the essential 1967 book “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and also floating about online as audio files if you don’t mind hearing an interpreter after every sentence.) Still, there’s some merit. For one thing, a lot of it is set in a bakery, so there are some really delicious looking cakes.
Hitchcock Cameo: None
46 – “The Manxman” (1929)
Hitchcock’s final all-silent film, this love story based on a popular novel is a big fat soap opera love triangle featuring falsely rumored deaths, attempted suicides and a courtroom finale. This is another one Hitchcock later shrugged off, but I rate it above some others if for no other reason than I’m fascinated with the Isle of Man. This little spit of dirt between England and Ireland has its own customs and cultures and it is where Fletcher Christian came from. (See opening for reminder that you are invited to call some of my rating criteria ridiculous.)
Hitchcock Cameo: None
45 – “Champagne” (1928)
I’m willing to admit that maybe I liked this one more than some of the other early not-very-Hitchcock silents because the print that is floating around online is gorgeous. Nevertheless, this story of a millionaire who fakes bankruptcy to teach his spoiled daughter a lesson is fun enough to keep you engaged and let the sets, costumes, exercises in POV camerawork and jitterbugging editing dazzle.
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
44 – “The Skin Game” (1931)
A baffling bit of gossipy soap opera that is enjoyable because it basically positions blue blood British nobility (whom we are accustomed to seeing as the bad guys) as morally superior to the tasteless and ill-mannered “nouveau riche” (whom, one would surmise, gained their affluence through hard work.) It ends with a pregnant woman drowning herself rather than allowing her husband to know of her impure money-making schemes, and everyone agreeing this is a happy ending.
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
43 – “Number 17″ (1932)
This isn’t the most memorable movie, but it is exciting for Hitchcock fans because it represents him really starting to get into his element: sympathetic criminals and iconic locations (in this case, a broken down house near a rail yard.) It also has the benefit of being extremely short, so you can easily watch it online during lunch.
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
42 – “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (1941)
Hitchcock’s third American film was his only comedy (well, “The Trouble With Harry” might be considered a comedy, but more on that later) and it isn’t bad… it just isn’t very Hitchcock (it’s more Mark Sandrich than “The Master of Suspense.”) Anyhow, Carol Lombard and Robert Montgomery are a married couple who discover that, technically, they aren’t married, which leads to all sorts of door-slamming shenanigans until the final make-up kiss and fade-out. Extra points for setting a pivotal scene at the World’s Fair.
Hitchcock Cameo: 42 minute mark, walking past a building.
41 – “Rich and Strange” (1931)
“Rich and Strange” is representative of a weird, ephemeral time in film history just as silent filmmakers were trying to make sense of talkies. As such, there is sound – but not a lot of it. Hitchcock uses this to great effect in “Blackmail” (which you’ll find much higher up on this list) and my overall enthusiasm for this odd vibe may place “Rich and Strange” higher on my list than, perhaps, others may put it. The film itself is a light fish-out-of-water comedy about regular folks who suddenly find themselves loaded – kinda like the last season of “Roseanne,” but, you know, much more British. Also, “Rich and Strange” is quite possibly the only chance you’ll get to see riveting footage of the now-forgotten gentleman’s sport of Deck Quoits.
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
40 – “Juno and the Paycock” (1930)
Sean O’Casey’s legendary play is, in this 1930 film, just that: a play. There’s little done to open the story up and, if his name weren’t on it, you’d hardly know this was Hitchcock’s work. Nevertheless, once you settle in to the mindset of the stage, the drama of the Boyle family of Dublin during the Irish Civil War is classic stuff.
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
39 – “Under Capricorn” (1949)
The pros: early Technicolor, extensive use of long takes (an essential lead-up to “Rope”) and the oddball history of Australia is always of interest. The cons: Zzzzzzzzz. Huh? I’m sorry you said something? I … zzzzzzz. Yeah, even Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman can’t inject much oomph into this parlor room drama.
Hitchcock Cameo: Double shot! At the three-minute mark on the town square during a parade and at the thirteen-minute mark on the steps of the government building.
38 – “Marnie” (1964)
Here’s where I really start to piss people off. Many really love this one and would rank it far higher. I simply can not. “Marnie” represents an end of an era for Hitchcock – his final film with DP Robert Birks, editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Herrmann and the last with a classic “troubled blonde” in a lead role (in this case, Tippi Hedren, following “The Birds.”) As far as I’m concerned, they could have left well enough alone. “Marnie” looks, sounds and smells like a classic Hitchcock, but it isn’t… because it is stupid. That’s what it comes down to: a dumb plot, an oversimplification of pop psychology and Sean Connery not being as dashing as he thinks he is. Daring subject matter for its time, perhaps, but depictions of marital rape and misinterpreted pedophilia can’t trump watching a movie, turning to the person next to you, and asking, “is it me, or is this all a bit over the top?”
Hitchcock cameo: Five-minute mark in a hotel hallway, passing Tippi Hedren.
37 – “The Ring” (1927)
Fisticuffs and plenty of ‘em! There’s nothing I like more than old timey boxing and “The Ring” has that PLUS the slightly sped-up motion of a silent film. The rest is a basic love triangle, but the training and fights scenes are, at least for me, very entertaining. There are also some nice visual flourishes, such as shooting lovers reflected in shimmering water, which remind you what an innovator Hitchcock was. Also, this is the only film in his resume neither based on a preexisting work and where he has sole writing credit.
Hitchcock Cameo: None.
36 – “The Paradine Case” (1947)
Sandwiched between two major films (“Notorious” and “Rope,”) this courtroom drama was and still is considered a bit of a disappointment. There’s also plenty of evidence that it was a troubled production. I firmly believe, however, that is is one of the more warped Hitchcock films and a nice preview of things to come in films like “Vertigo,” at least from a story perspective. Gregory Peck is a married lawyer who basically falls in love with the alleged murderess he is defending. She may be falsely accused, she may be a cold killer, we don’t quite know, but Peck’s wife knows she’ll lose her husband forever if he can’t save this woman, even if it means pinning the murder on someone else. Yeah, there’s some weird psychosexual stuff going on here. Added bonus for including Louis Jourdan, later to play the borderline-pedophile lead in “Gigi” and Anton Arcane in “Return of the Swamp Thing.”
Hitchcock Cameo: 38 minute mark, leaving the train station with a cello case.
35 – “Topaz” (1969)
Plenty of Hitch’s work involved international espionage, but this is one of the few to involve actual politics. Based on a Leon Uris novel, “Topaz” tells the somewhat-factual story of how the US discovered the Soviet Union’s missiles in Cuba. Highlights include scenes of New York location photography, particularly the sequence with visiting Cuban Marxists in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa. Lowlights include a leisurely pace to find out which of the dude’s you don’t care about is the mole in the French government. Still, some good scenes of watching people watch other people, by this point a Hitchcock speciality.
Hitchcock Cameo: 32-minute mark, being pushed in a wheelchair at an airport, then getting out of the wheelchair.
34 – “Murder!” (1930)
British people love to shout “murder!” (Old timey ones even shout “murther!”) An early gem, “Murder!” is a tight examination of standard Hitchcock dread and paranoia. Young Norah Baring looks to be caught redhanded, persists she is innocent, but has no memory of how she wound up looming over a corpse. It’ll take some creative reenactments to figure out what happened, but luckily Norah is part of a traveling theater troupe and they get into peoples’ heads for a living. Fun.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the one hour mark, walking past the murder house (excuse me, Murder! house).
33 – “Family Plot” (1976)
When you think of the iconoclastic filmmakers of the 1970s, you don’t really think of Alfred Hitchcock. While Hitch’s sole ’70s contribution does have its creaky parts (hell, a lot of it has the look of a “Columbo” episode) its dark humor and Bruce Dern’s whacked-out lead performance makes this tale of backstabbing grifters with stolen jewels in the chandelier pretty enjoyable. It’s kinda fun to think that when Brian De Palma was pumping out his meta-Hitchcock films, the Master still had one final one in him.
Hitchcock Cameo: Forty-minute mark, in silhouette at the births and deaths records office.
32 – “Young and Innocent” (1936)
A frustrating series of circumstances implicate an innocent man in a murder – and we’re the only ones who know it. Accepting that justice won’t win out, our main character lams it and tries to find the killer himself. The nightmare scenario builds to the final climax, the reveal of the guilty party care of an elaborate tracking shot that is impressive to this day. (It’s a little bit marred because of musicians in blackface – but it’s the bad guy in blackface, so I guess it is okay?) The nightmare is made even more frustrating because, for a few moments, WE see the killer, but our heroes on screen do not. Ugh, I need a drink, I’m getting stressed out.
Hitchcock Cameo: Sixteen-minute mark, holding a camera outside of a courthouse.
31 – “Stage Fright” (1950)
Double-crosses, secret identities, false confessions – a nicely blended smoothy concerning the malleability of truth. Marlene Dietrich is handed a fork and knife and invited to eat up the scenery and she does a pretty good job of it. It’s funny, because whenever a lead in a Hitchcock film is falsely accused of something they find an angel to help them. But if the lead is approached BY someone who is (claiming to be) falsely accused – look out! Bad things are coming.
Hitchcock Cameo: One of the better ones, at the 39-minute mark. He pauses to take a good look at Jane Wyman in a maid’s outfit.
30 – “The Wrong Man” (1956)
What’s that Hitchcock movie? That nightmarish descent into paranoia when a man is falsely accused of being someone he is not? A whole bunch of ‘em, actually, but the one that involves the most jazz bass playing is Henry Fonda in “The Wrong Man.” Henry Fonda? Who could ever dream of him being a bad guy? (Well, Sergio Leone could, but that’s why he was a genius.) Anyway, Young Abe Lincoln/Tom Joad plays Manny Balestrero, a real life musician that had the misfortune to have a similar face and bad spelling of a criminal. Even though Manny’s hellish trial leads to exoneration (thanks to dumb luck,) the existential crisis is almost too much for his family to bear. Location shooting in my hood of Queens, New York give this some bonus points.
Hitchcock Cameo: Right at the beginning, in silhouette, narrating the prologue (and letting us know this is a true story.)
29 – “Suspicion” (1941)
The first of four collaborations with Cary Grant (who would later ostensibly parody his Hitchcock work in Stanley Donen’s marvelous “Charade,”) “Suspicion” marks a real turning point for the actor better known for screwball comedies and bubbly romance. He’s still debonair and witty, but he’s also dangerous. Or is he? Joan Fontaine (who won an Oscar for the role) is unsure if her new husband’s love is true, or if he is a malicious gold-digger with murderous plans. I’m sure as hell not gonna be the one to spoil it.
Hitchcock Cameo: Another double shot! At the four minute mark walking a horse across the screen and at the forty-six minute mark posting a letter.
28 – “Secret Agent “(1936)
Things are about to get confusing. Alfred Hitchcock made a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent.” This isn’t that (that movie is called “Sabotage,” and later adapted as “The Secret Agent” with Bob Hoskins in 1996, but not to be confused with Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” and… oh, I’m getting a headache.) Anyway, “Secret Agent” has John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, mistaken identity and assassination in the Swiss Alps. Boy, Hitchcock really had a thing against going to Switzerland, as you’ll see when we talk about “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Anyway, the hook here is an interesting one – what happens when the guy you are rooting for is responsible for killing the wrong person? Cool casino photography and one of Lorre’s better performances (the squirrely freak playing a master spy called “The General”) makes this a real fun one.
Hitchcock Cameo: Most sources say there is none, but some think that’s him in the bowler hat coming down the ship’s gangplank in a bowler hat and funny mustache at the eight minute mark.
27 – “Lifeboat” (1944)
“Lifeboat” is great, but not quite as great as it should be. This is the first of a number of experiments Hitchcock would do in nailing his POV to one location, and, in my mind, the least successful. An American ship is sunk by a U-Boat and lots of pop philosophy is thrown about as they all get dehydrated. The prose gets a little purple toward the end as the German survivor they bring aboard isn’t just a lowly seaman, but a big nasty Nazi officer with a black heart. Most of our team make it to the end, but their faith in humanity is greatly challenged.
Hitchcock Cameo: Perhaps the best of all. How to fit Hitch in the film when it is all set on a raft? He’s seen in a pre-photo shop newspaper ad for a weight loss program called “Reduco Obesity Slayer.”
26 – “Spellbound” (1945)
Here’s a cool thing about a lot of Hitchcock’s films: he was fascinated with the world of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, a lot of the psychology that made it into his movies were somewhat dumbed-down or even complete gibberish. “Spellbound” stars Gregory Peck as the man plagued by phobias and Ingrid Bergman is the accented shrink who will save him. There’s no shortage of heavy-handed imagery (or oddball psychotic triggers, like a fork across a white tablecloth) culminating in the famous dream sequence designed in part by Salvador Dali. But the movie’s earnest qualities ultimately win you over; it’s corny, but very watchable, and was one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the thirty-seven minute mark, emerging from a hotel elevator holding a violin case, smoking a cigarette.
25 – “The Birds” (1962)
And dead center of this list is one of Hitch’s most famous, but, indeed, most polarizing films. And I’ll admit that I’m of two minds about it. I love the slow, deliberate opening – it’s all cannily staged voyeurism and blasts of color. Then, chaos reigns (and rains!) down from the heavens for no reason. I adore the film’s decision to remain baffling (killer birds – but why?!?!) as well as its bleak, fatalistic conclusion. The problem comes with the second viewing – once the shock wears off, it is actually rather dull.
Hitchcock Cameo: Two minute mark, leaving the pet shop with two dogs (which he actually owned.)
24 – “Saboteur” (1942)
A fast-paced thriller about a falsely accused man (again!) who inadvertently causes an explosion at an airplane plant. It was the work of fifth columnists, and the fact that this was a very real fear in 1942 is enough to make “Saboteur” a fascinating record of World War II-era paranoia. That and the New York location photography, including a big finish atop the Statue of Liberty (foreshadowing the climax of “North By Northwest.”)
Hitchcock Cameo: One hour and four minute mark, standing in front of a drugstore.
23 – “Foreign Correspondent” (1940)
This tale of a newspaperman thrust into international intrigue takes on an almost alternative history aspect in that it tries to accurately predict what the forthcoming, inevitable war will be like. It is also notable for its numerous subliminal images (try to find Hitler’s cartoonish face lurking in a windmill – the cause of how the wind will blow?) as well as a thrilling airplane crash into water. “Foreign Correspondent” had a ridiculous number of well known people working on the script, including Ben Hecht, Robert Benchley and Budd Schulberg.
Hitchcock Cameo: The twelve minute mark, reading a newspaper and smoking as Joel McCrea is leaving his hotel.
22 – “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934)
Peter Lorre, newly escaped from Nazi Germany, didn’t speak a word of English and learned his lines phonetically. So put that weird voice, weird pronunciation and weird face together and you have a screen icon. Another great example of “normal” people suddenly thrust into intrigue and danger, a vacationing family in the Alps have to stop an assassination back home in England. Luckily Mom’s skeet-shooting ability is well-established at the beginning of the picture. A classic.
Hitchcock cameo: Open to debate! Some sources claim the man walking by the bus at the thirty-three minute mark is him. Others claim he’s not in there. (Or maybe he is, but they’re not saying because they KNOW TOO MUCH!)
21 – “Sabotage” (1936)
In the Hitchcock/Truffaut book there is a famous discussion about how a bomb planted under a desk and exploding is only interesting if the audience is aware of the bomb but the characters are not. “Sabotage” is this concept taking to the nth degree. In the film we follow (and, in a twisted way, root for?) a terrorist hoping to deliver a bomb to London’s Piccadilly Circus. The fact that he is a movie theater owner and the bomb is hidden in a film canister shouldn’t go unnoticed. This is the one loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” and has some seriously tense moments. (Will the little boy make it? You might be surprised… )
Hitchcock Cameo: Nine minute mark, walking along the sidewalk, glancing up at the apartment.
20 – “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927)
This is the film that made him. Not just his first big financial success, but the one that put him in his sweet spot… you know, a place of murder, madness and existential dread. Based on a book inspired by Jack the Ripper, Ivor Novello stars as a creepy new tenant who may or may not be the killer. Even if you think you are too stricken with ADHD to handle a silent film, give this one a try. It is so gorgeous and evocative that it will draw you right in. Hitchcock was very enthusiastic about the German Expressionists and adapted some of their lighting techniques. Extra points when you realize that Novello is the character Jeremy Northam played in “Gosford Park.”
Hitchcock Cameo: Three minute mark, at a desk in the newsroom.
19 – “Torn Curtain” (1966)
What’s the sexiest part of international espionage? Math! Butch Cassidy and Mary Poppins team up as young physics nerds in love, en route to a European science convention. When he (Paul Newman) starts making overtures to defect to the Eastern Block, she (Julie Andrews) doesn’t know what to think. It is, of course, a double-cross, and a big attempt to “smuggle” out a mathematical equation that details the length of the USSR’s anti-ballistic missile capacities. The film oncludes with a giant set piece in a crowded theater that became the hallmark of Hitchcock’s work by the mid-1950s.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the eight minute mark, holding a baby in a hotel lobby.
18 – “Rope” (1948)
One of the most audacious cinema experiments that, frankly, has yet to be topped. (C’mon, “Russian Ark” is gorgeous, but how much tension is in that film?) Loosely based on the true case of Leopold and Loeb (though bleached on any homosexual content) (or is it?), “Rope” is about two intellectuals looking to see if they can commit the “perfect crime” as some sort of artistic statement. They hold a dinner party, which is presented as a filmed play. The camera moves, but the movie is a collection of entire film magazines, splicing shots on characters’ backs and other featureless frames. It is perceived, therefore, as one mellifluous shot. They are eventually outsmarted by James Stewart, but Hitchcock and his highly choreographed film are the true geniuses. It’s a fascinating thing to watch, but can be a little exasperating. I mean, film relies on editing for a reason, you know.
Hitchcock Cameo: Like “Lifeboat,” we’re stuck in one location. From the deluxe apartment in the sky, though, we can clearly make out an advertisement with Hitch’s famous silhouette. Indeed, it is, once again, for “Reducto Obesity Slayer.” You can catch it at the fifty-five minute mark.
17 – “The Trouble With Harry” (1955)
Some call “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” Hitchcock’s only talkie comedy, but if you are deviant and sick, you’ll be laughing at this one, too. “The Trouble With Harry” stars Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe, Jerry “The Beaver” Mathers, and a dead body. Long before “Weekend at Bernie’s,” the corpse of Harry Worp was being schlepped around the autumn New England leaves. The twist is that, unlike most of Hitchcock’s films where someone is wrongly accused, here everyone is convinced that THEY are the one who inadvertently killed Harry. The film walks through each scenario to show that he died of natural causes. No one is too upset.
Hitchcock Cameo: Twenty-two minutes in, glimpsed through a barred window, seen looking at paintings. The voyeur is observed voyeurizing from a voyeuristic point of view!!
16 – “I Confess” (1953)
It’s a perfect set-up. Need to pin a murder on someone? Find a guy who can’t give his alibi and can’t divulge the true killer. Make sure he knows the killer is you… but also make sure he’s a priest and you tell him during confession. Zing! It’s another wrong man scenario, but with a Papist twist, and one of Hitchcock’s most heavy imagery films. (Hitchcock was, indeed, a Catholic and his Uncle wore a collar.) Montgomery Clift and his eyebrows star as the priest with a past. Extra points for location photography in Quebec City, which is where I went on my honeymoon, so, you know, it’s awesome. (But if I ever get divorced I may bump this back ten spots.)
Hitchcock Cameo: About two minutes in, crossing the top of a staircase.
15 – “Frenzy” (1972)
Hitchcock’s late-career return to Britain begins with murther most foul on the banks of the Thames, visits the nooks and crannies of the Covent Garden greenmarket and concludes with an investigation into a gentleman’s necktie. Very British. Also, very macabre, upping the violence a bit as well as gruesome moments like post-rigor mortis grips. Some of the performances aren’t so hot (Barry Forster is very much a poor man’s Michael Caine) but all told this serial killer thriller is one of the better ones.
Hitchcock Cameo: In the opening scenes, wearing a bowler hat, among the crowds looking at the discovered corpse.
14 – “Dial M For Murder” (1954)
Okay, now we’re ready to rock and roll. This is an anti-whodunnit, because you are along for the ride the whole time. In fact, you may want to pinch yourself midway through when you realize that you are basically rooting for a guy to commit murder (he’s kinda forced into it by blackmail; it’s a long story.) There’s a twist, the wrong person ends up dead, and there’s all kinds of business with crossed phone calls, missing keys, scarves and police inspectors that just won’t go away. Juicy as all hell, and another one shot almost exclusively in one place but doesn’t feel musty.
Hitchcock Cameo: Another headscratcher, considering this is almost entirely in one apartment. But he’s there in a key photograph at the thirteen-minute mark.
13 – “Blackmail” (1929)
Hitchcock (and the British film industry’s) first talkie, “Blackmail” shows how The Master was ready to jump right into the new technology and find ways to tweak it for maximum impact. Most intriguing is when the soundtrack takes on the POV of the lead actress, who stabbed a man in self-defense but is being blackmailed. She is so stuck in her own head that the dialogue sounds like gibberish except for the word “knife,” which, as you would imagine, makes cutting the food on her plate a struggle. The film concludes with a set piece at the dome of the British Museum, showing Hitchcock’s penchant for startling locations at the big finish.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the ten minute mark, reading a book and being pestered by a small boy in the subway.
12 – “To Catch a Thief” (1955)
No “To Catch a Thief,” no “Ocean’s Eleven.” Arguably his most Hollywood film (and the one that gave Monaco its real life Princess) this is Cary Grant at his most charming, Grace Kelly at his most gorgeous, Paramount costume designer Edith Head at her most glamorous and 1950s-style sublimation of sexuality at its most ridiculous. There are literally fireworks that shoot off when they finally do it. Plot-wise, reformed cat burglar (Cary Grant) has to do one last score to clear his name. Frankly, the story is secondary to the dreaminess of the production.
Hitchcock Cameo: Next to Cary Grant on the bus at the ten minute mark.
11 – “Strangers on a Train” (1951)
Two men (strangers) meet (on a train) and, in conversing, they realize they’d both like someone removed from their life. The perfect crime, one realizes, would be if they “criss-cross,” each taking care of the other one’s problem. With no motive there’d be no suspicion. But do both men agree? One guy certainly does, and bumps off the other man’s wife. But his alibi isn’t so hot, and he’s unsure if he can go through with the killing. And with the other guy hanging around so much it is starting to get a little warm in here, no? “Strangers on a Train” is a classic nightmare you can’t wake from, where base urges lead to questions of moral culpability. Also: great shoot-out at the merry-go-round.
Hitchcock Cameo: Ten minute mark, boarding a train carrying a double-bass.
10 – “Notorious” (1946)
Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, international intrigue, legendary crane shots ending on a tight close-up of a key, upside-down drugged-out hazy POV shots, production code-defying two-and-a-half minute smooches and men who are either dreamboats or Nazi spies. In other words, big stars, big stakes, secret identities and a tense finale at a dinner party. If you’ve never seen a Hitchcock movie and want to start with something simple, pure and engrossing, this may be the place to start.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the one hour and four minute mark, guzzling some champagne at Claude Rains’ party. (Wait, does that mean he is a Nazi spy, too?)
9 – “Rebecca” (1940)
In the history of cool-ass names Maxim de Winter is up towards the top, and the handsome, mysterious Laurence Olivier is just the man to play him. He sweeps the 21 year old orphan girl (Joan Fontaine) off her feet and away to his castle where creepy curtains blow, terrifying maids have something up their sleeve and something weird is going on in Maxim de Winter’s late wife’s room. “Rebecca” is a marvelous psychosexual haunted house picture and the type of film that truly benefits from the decency codes of the day. Much of the freaky stuff is left between the lines, but there’s just enough implication to get the mind reeling. “Rebecca” won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1940, the only Hitchcock film to get the top honor.
Hitchcock Cameo: Late in the game, long after you’ve forgotten about the Hitchcock Cameo, you’ll see him walk past a phone booth at the two hour and six minute mark.
8 – “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956)
Here’s where my list gets controversial! This unfairly maligned (or at least shrugged as “not as good as the 1934 version”) is neck-and-neck with “North by Northwest” for me. They have the same VistaVision/Technicolor look and they both drop normal people in the deep end of international intrigue and hope they can swim to shore. This one happens to include Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera” as her kidnapped child struggles for freedom. The finale at Royal Albert Hall (and the assassination that must be foiled before the cymbal crash) is as well constructed a set piece as any you’ll see in cinema.
Hitchcock Cameo: Twenty-five minutes in, watching acrobats in the Moroccan souk.
7 – “North by Northwest” (1959)
By now you may have noticed a trend. There have been a great number of Hitchcock films about mistaken identities and otherwise normal people thrust into dangerous situations with international repercussions. Well, I’m sure Hitchcock noticed it, too, so with “North by Northwest” he decided to take the formula and crank it up to eleven, making the most absurd, whacked-out “wrong man” scenario, to the point that this is almost a parody. (Things got weirder a few years later when Stanley Donen took the film’s star, Cary Grant, and pushed plausibility even further with the highly entertaining “Charade,” the best fake-Hitchcock movie ever made.) Here Cary Grant plays a “Mad Men”-esque exec mistaken for superspy George Kaplan, but here’s the twist: Kaplan doesn’t exist! He’s just a ruse to psych-out bad guys, but the bad guys think they are hot on his tail! The only way to find safety is to fight it out, so it’s off the U.N. (still a somewhat new building,) Grand Central Terminal, a deadly cornfield in the middle of nowhere, a perfectly designed mid-century cantilevered glass home and, of course, the top of Mount Rushmore. You don’t get more iconic than “North by Northwest,” especially with Cary Grant and those sunglasses. Quick, let’s stop talking about it before I second guess myself and bump it further up the list.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the very end of (Saul Bass’ awesome) credits sequence, with bus doors slamming in his face.
6 – “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943)
Reported to be Hitchcock’s favorite of his own films, it is a straightforward suspense story but just rich enough to lend itself to all sorts of interpretations. (Bluntly, it is about sex; nubile young women discovering the power, implications, and danger of sex. There, I said it.) Young Teresa Wright is thrilled that her Uncle Charlie is coming to visit her sleepy home town. In time, though, she learns he is suspected of being a murderer. The “is he or isn’t he?” game is played for a while, then things only grow more dangerous. Joseph Cotten is perfectly cast as the warm, charming (and evil?) uncle. This movie would be good with other actors, but with him in the lead it is a masterpiece.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the seventeen minute mark, playing cards on the train.
5 – “The 39 Steps” (1935)
Listen, if you are in a Hitchcock film and a frantic woman comes up to you looking for help – just split. You’ll end up framed for a murder you didn’t commit, on the run from police you can’t trust and the only way to clear your name will be to expose a cabal of foreign spies. “The 39 Steps” may sound like ten other movies on this list, but this one really sings. It is thrilling and funny and the night scenes in Scotland (with our hero handcuffed to his female eventual compatriot) are beautifully shot. The big finish and revelation of how the spies are smuggling out secrets comes from way out in left field, but has been in front of your face the whole time. This is a big crowdpleaser (I’ve had the good fortune to see this one with a packed house) and was a major success for Hitchcock.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the six minute mark, with a white cigarette box at the theater.
4 – “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)
Goofy comedy, head-scratching mystery, agonizing paranoia and a few moments of terror. That’s the Hitchcock formula and it ticks like a Swiss watch in “The Lady Vanishes.” Featuring a cavalcade of amusing British characters (so many jokes about cricket!) Michael Redgrave is either going nuts, or everyone is playing him for a fool. He’s convinced there was an elderly woman on the train from the unnamed Alpine country with him, but no one else saw her, or at least they won’t admit it. I don’t have to tell you there’s a larger conspiracy going on (spies, always spies) but when it finally comes together it is perfect in a way that makes you slap your forehead and shout “of course!” They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the one hour and thirty-two minute mark, smoking a cigarette in Victoria Station.
3 – “Vertigo” (1958)
The Sight & Sound poll called this the greatest movie ever made. I won’t argue it. But I’m calling it the third-greatest Hitchcock movie ever made. Makes no sense? Accept the mystery! Which, of course, is what James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson won’t do, leading him down a path of obsession and self-destructive behavior. Here’s the thing with “Vertigo.” The first time you watch it, you are busy trying to piece together the clues of the (admittedly far-fetched) plot. The second time you can really dig deep on the psychological implications of Stewart and Kim Novack’s pretty twisted relationship. The third time you watch it you can just feast on the color saturation and the slick camera moves and Bernard Herrmann’s masterpiece of a score. The fourth time you watch it…
Hitchcock Cameo: At the eleven minute mark, walking down the street with a trumpet case.
2 – “Psycho” (1960)
I spent a lot of time debating between “Psycho” and “Vertigo” for the number two spot. Eventually I figured I’d go take a shower to clear my thoughts and, yeah, that’s when I realized what had to win. What is so exciting about “Psycho” is just how many rules the movie breaks. The main character gets killed thirty minutes into the movie as does (basically) her storyline about the stolen cash. Hand that in to any screenwriting professor and wait for the big red F to come back on your title page. “Psycho” suffers a tiny bit from the pop-psychology issues of “Spellbound,” but it more than makes up for it with Anthony Perkins’ marvelous performance (it’s still electrifying, and feels “current”) and the camerawork, editing and music are some of the finest ever put to film. Maybe there’s more to brood over with “Vertigo,” but for entertainment’s sake, nothing tops “Psycho.”
Hitchcock Cameo: At the six minute mark, wearing a cowboy hat (?), seen through Janet Leigh’s office window when she returns from her midday hookup.
1 – “Rear Window” (1954)
Did I say that nothing tops “Psycho?” That’s not true. And while most people certainly list “Rear Window” in the top ten of Hitchcock’s oeuvre I will personally fight anyone who doesn’t recognize it is as the best. Or, if I won’t personally fight, I’ll send Grace Kelly across the courtyard on my command. “Rear Window” is Hitchcock’s most self-aware film, a thorough examination on the dangers of voyeurism. Yeah, I know, so’s “Vertigo,” but guess what, “Rear Window” is a lot more fun. If you are lucky enough to have gone this far in life without seeing it, it is another of Hitchcock’s “stuck in one place” films, this time because James Stewart’s “L.B. Jeffries” is convalescing with a broken leg. He watches his neighbors as though they were television, checking in on different programs. Some are lighthearted, some are sexy, some are sad. Then there’s one that is a little too intriguing. Yeah, right there across the way – Raymond Burr killed his wife. And Jeffries is the only one who knows it. The moment when Burr breaks the fourth wall looking directly into Jeffries’ enormously tumescent telescopic lens (he may be in a wheelchair, but he’s all man!) is, for me, one of the five most chilling shots in all of cinema. “Rear Window” is perfect – thrilling, funny, sexy and loaded with surprises. All of Hitchcock’s tricks are in full force, firing on all cylinders, working in perfect syncopation with the script. I didn’t even get to the part about using flashbulbs as weapons.
Hitchcock Cameo: At the twenty-six minute mark, winding a clock, with all the Deist implications therein.
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