Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Top Ten Tuesdays: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock

Announcing a new series for this blog, it's Top Ten Tuesdays, where I compile a Top Ten list on a given theme! Everyone loves lists, and everyone who reads this blog loves movies, so lists about movies seems like a recipe for success. And I can think of no better top ten list to start off this series than my picks for the top ten best films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock, preparing to not like this list at all.
Hitchcock is one of the best filmmakers of all time, and one of my personal favorites. He was a visionary, and one of those rare filmmakers who can actually be considered iconic. To this day, we describe films as being Hitchcockian--how many directors actually have an adjective named after them? The well-reputed master of suspense, Hitchcock's movies are distinctly thrilling, and often a lot of fun. There's a certain degree of whimsy to his take on horror, be it through his use of MacGuffins (a plot device he popularized) to trick the audience, or his signature cameos which I would argue qualify as the first ever cinematic easter egg. He made films that he wanted to make, and famously fought with studios over choices in his films. The end result is a series of films that have remained relevant and hold up today, as opposed to dated films which feel stuck due to what was popular in their era.

But on top of the general quality of his films, Hitchcock's greatest strength was that he had ambitious ideas for what one could convey through film that others could not match. He would dive into newer cinematic inventions with gusto, embracing bright colors and previously unseen tricks of cinematography which give his films a striking look which still stands out today. Although, to be fair, not all of his ideas work--his liberal use of green screen far before the technology was fine-tuned looks awkward in comparison to today's effects, and one wonders what brilliance he would have been capable of were he making movies today. But we were lucky that he was making films when he was so that he could influence so many of today's filmmakers.

When I look at Hitchcock's filmography, I think that his films fit into two categories. There are the films where he really plays with the storytelling, finding innovative and unexpected ways to provide something the audience has never seen before. Then there are the films that are impeccably-made traditional thrillers--cases of mystery and intrigue and mistaken identity and murder. Most of his filmography would fit into this latter category; Hitchcock does those types of standard thrillers better than just about anyone else. They're certainly worth checking out--they were Hitchcock's MO, and demonstrate his qualities as a filmmaker. But, this list is not the best Hitchcock films, it's my favorite Hitchcock films, and I tend to gravitate towards the films in that first category. They just stick out to me more. This means that many of Hitchcock's greatest thrillers which often appear on such lists will not be appearing on this list. But I'll give them an honorable mention--be sure to check out The 39 Steps, Suspicion, Spellbound, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, and Marnie for some of the best thrillers that Hitchcock has to offer.

Suspicion, a great film excluded from this list because I can do what I want.

And now, finally, onto my list!

#10: Family Plot

Here's one you don't see on a lot of lists, Hitchcock's final film was well-received but is often forgotten when talking about the director's work. And that's a real shame because it's absolutely wonderful, and a surprising late addition to Hitchcock's filmography. One of the most surprising things is that it's a comedy, and a very funny one at that. At times it feels like Hitchcock is making a parody of his own films, but in doing so, all of his signature effects and touches are still there. What we get is Hitchcock's usual themes of intrigue and deception and suspense, but with a wonderful element of silliness. It's an underrated gem that certainly deserves to be discussed and features some great performances by Bruce Dern, Karen Black, William Devane, and especially the incredible Barbara Harris as a fake psychic who is thrust into the role of detective.

#9: Rebecca

As beloved as he is, the Academy Awards were never too kind to Hitchcock. He himself never won best director (although he did receive an honorary Oscar later in his career) and only one of his films ever won Best Picture. That honor goes to Rebecca, a psychological mystery whose creepiness sneaks up on you as the film progresses and the twisted nature of the scenario becomes more clear. The film is about an unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) who falls in love with and marries widower Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The problem is that he continues to be obsessed with his first wife, the titular Rebecca. Fueled by the conniving and equally-obsessed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, whose performance was named one of the best movie villains of all time by the American Film Institute), the film showcases Hitchcock's deft hand with restraint. As the extent of Max's obsession becomes increasingly horrifying and damaging to the second Mrs. DeWinter, Hitchcock mines every ounce of drama from the unusual scenario, and offers one of the best book to screen adaptations in film history.

And if you know and love this film like I do, then be sure to check out this parody made by the wonderful comedians Mitchell & Webb. It's excellent.

#8: The Birds

Some of Hitchcock's premises can get convoluted, with unlikely scenarios and lots of twists and turns. The Birds is incredibly straightforward: what if all the birds in the world decided to attack humans? That's it. What we get is a beautifully done horror movie whose appeal is kind of hard to understand, but apparent nonetheless. The plot isn't much of anything, and neither are the characters. But this is Hitchcock's most definitive dive into horror, and it is certainly terrifying. The birds make great, and convincing villains. Ultimately, The Birds succeeds because it's uncomplicated (hell, even the title is as simple as it possibly could be). With The Birds, Hitchcock takes one idea and executes it better than it could be done by anyone else. The result is an undeniably scary movie that will make you wary of birds for months.

#7: Rear Window

When I mentioned before that I liked when Hitchcock finds unusual ways of storytelling, this is the type of film I'm talking about. In Rear Window, photographer Jeff Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is stuck in his apartment due to a broken leg. And just as Jeff is confined to his room, so to is Hitchcock. But, from a window overlooking a courtyard, Jeff witnesses what he believes could be evidence of a murder, and investigates from his bedroom with the help of his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, stealing the movie in her scenes), his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), and a policeman friend of his (Wendell Corey). The mystery that unfolds is a solid one--and a generic film investigating it would be an enjoyable movie in its own right. But by restricting himself to the one room and the courtyard, Hitchcock elevates this film beyond your standard detective flick. It's a revelation, and a film that only someone like Hitchcock could really pull off. Perhaps most impressive is his use of characters. Jeff and his three friends are the only major characters who actually speak, and yet the film is filled with the vibrant characters who Jeff spies from his window. Be it the dancer Jeff calls "Miss Torso," or a character referred to only as "The Songwriter," or of course the murderous Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr, who offers some very chilling moments from afar), they all come across as familiar and defined. Even when Hitchcock restricts himself to one location, he nonetheless gives the impression of a greater world existing outside of it. This contributes to the film's sense of claustrophobia and suspense, and keeps it from feeling small.

#6: Vertigo

It only makes #6 on my list, but Vertigo is considered by many to be Hitchcock's greatest film. In fact, in 2012, Sight & Sound named it the greatest film ever made. And it's clear why this film has received such acclaim. The story, a case of mistaken identity and double lives, is a good one, but it's the filmmaking itself which sets Vertigo apart. Hitchcock and his long-time cinematographer Robert Burks were clearly having a lot of fun here, with plenty of artsy shots and bright uses of color unlike anyone had really seen before. My love for Vertigo is held back somewhat because I feel the characters are a little undeveloped compared to some of his other works, but the actual camera work is Hitchcock at his peak and that's more than enough to earn Vertigo its highly-regarded place in the cinematic canon.


Not a lot of people know about Rope, but it has earned a bit of a cult following among Hitchcock fans. From 1948 to 1950, Hitchcock made three films, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Stage Fright where he was clearly playing with the idea of extra long takes. Of these three, Rope is undeniably the most successful as a complete film, and it's also the one where long takes are used most completely and effectively. With the exception of a brief shot at the beginning, all of Rope is shot to look as if it's a long take (much like the most recent Best Picture winner, Birdman). Rope centers around young intellectuals Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who murder a former classmate, and then host a dinner party while the body is still in the apartment, all as an intellectual exercise just to see if they can get away with it. It occasionally feels like Hitchcock is approaching the project from the same viewpoint--like he's presenting it in one-take just to see if he can get away with it. At times, Rope comes across more like an experiment than a film, and the editing technology had not quite caught up to Hitchcock's ideas, meaning some of the transitions between takes, which Hitchcock tried to cover up, come across as really clunky and obvious to today's audiences. But despite this, the effect still comes across, and it's an undeniably successful experiment nonetheless. The technique, plus strong performances from Dall, Granger, and Jimmy Stewart, add a distinct flair to the cat-and-mouse game, making Rope one of Hitchcock's most fascinating, underrated mysteries.

 #4: Lifeboat

Before Rear Window and Rope, Hitchcock's first attempt at presenting a film set entirely in one location was Lifeboat. Set during World War II, after a collision between an American ship and a German U-Boat, a group of survivors are stranded aboard a lifeboat and must survive. The twist is that one of the survivors is from the U-Boat. What unfolds is a fascinating look at the nature of trust, desperation, and national allegiances. You get to know and care about these characters, even as they keep secrets about themselves hidden from the others. Of all of Hitchcock's twist endings, this one might be my favorite, completely subverting the direction in which the film seemed to be headed. It's a fascinating character study at sea, and an elegant use of a restricted space.

#3: North by Northwest

Referred to sometimes as the best James Bond movie that's not about James Bond, North by Northwest is a sleek spy thriller that is impossible not to enjoy. When Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant, in what I think is his best ever performances) is mistaken for a secret agent named George Kaplan, he ends up being kidnapped. Unable to prove to his kidnappers (James Mason and Martin Landau--both very creepy) that he's not who they think he is, he flees, setting in motion an exciting chase and compelling mystery where nothing is as it seems. This movie is the definition of thrilling--truly a joy to watch but with plenty of substance to back up the fun. It's an iconic film--the famous cropduster scene and the climactic chase across Mount Rushmore come to mind--and possibly Hitchcock's best executed film. It's one of those movies that everybody loves, and a reminder that you don't need today's special effects to create a fun and convincing action movie. A true must-see.

#2: Strangers on a Train

This is my absolute favorite premise for a Hitchcock film. Two people meet on a train. One, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a tennis star who is frustrated with his marriage. The other, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), is...welll...a psychopath. Bruno proposes that he kill Guy's wife, and in return, Guy would kill Bruno's father. This way, they could both get an unwanted person out of their lives while they have an alibi, and neither would be suspected because they'd have no motive to kill the other person's intended victim. Guy doesn't take Bruno seriously and leaves. But Bruno takes it very seriously and tries to put the plan into action. The rest, I won't give away, but the film starts going down some dark and twisty turns.

This is a gripping film, with a brilliant villain in Bruno. So many of the best stories are battles of good vs. evil. And while Guy is not necessarily an embodiment of good, this film at the very least embodies a sense of normal vs. evil. Bruno is fascinating because of Walker's strong performance, but also because it is clear that he is out of line with how the rest of the world works--and his interactions with the other characters help highlight his own abnormality and villainous streak. Bruno is one of Hitchcock's absolute best villains, and his presence creates a sense of unease that is difficult to match. I absolutely love everything about this film. The characters, the story, the idea, the filmmaking, simply everything fires on all cylinders. This film is incredibly effective for me. But, there's one Hitchcock film that's even better, and I bet you can guess what it is.

#1: Psycho

Well, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Possibly Hitchcock's most famous film, Psycho is not only my favorite Hitchcock film, but my favorite horror film full stop. Everything about this is great--the score, the cinematography, the performances, it's all incredible. And I think that we underestimate just how original this film was. When Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, died in the now famous shower scene, people were genuinely unnerved. She was the film's biggest star, and everyone believed she was the main character. For her to be killed off so soon was something nobody had considered, and is an element of the film that I don't think modern audiences appreciate enough. Speaking of that shower scene, even if the rest of the movie was just okay, that scene would still be heralded as one of the best bits of filmmaking ever. The emotion and atmosphere that Hitchcock evokes through sight and sound in this montage is unbelievable. When it was released, the studio famously stated that it was too violent for theaters, and didn't believe Hitchcock when he informed then that at no point does he show a knife actually piercing skin. He doesn't, but you think he does because of how well he manipulates your senses.

And then there, Norman Bates, our villain played by Anthony Perkins. What a brilliant performance (one which I can't believe didn't receive even an Oscar nomination at its release). Bates is fascinating in that he has qualities of goodness. The guy is clearly odd, clearly creepy, and it becomes clear, clearly a murderer. But Perkins grants him an unnerving sense of boyish charm. He is endearing even as we fear him, and our sympathies with him make him all the more frightening.

There's a lot in Psycho that can feel outdated. For example, the doctor's long monologue at the end explaining what happened is a cringe-worthy bit of unintentional comedy (actor Simon Oakland overacts the everloving crap out of it). But it still excited and entertains far more than most films made today. It is a testament to good storytelling and good filmmaking that this film has endured, and has continued to grow in esteem over time. It deserves its place as one of the best films ever made, and Hitchcock's masterpiece.

There you have it--my top ten favorite Hitchcock films! Share your list below--what films did I miss? What films should I have not included? And let me know if you have suggestions for future Top Ten Tuesdays in the comments.

Give me suggestions, or Hitchcock might come after you.

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