Today commemorates the 116th birthday of Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the greatest film auteur of all time. In celebration, we have conducted a list of films that we feel best define his career. With the catalogue of great films crafted by Hitchcock being so vast, it would be difficult to mention every notable piece but by reading this article, you will be able to see how inspirational he was to the industry, and maybe even discover a great film you’re yet to watch:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” – this quote is always synonymous with the film, a drama released in 1940 based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name. Rebecca follows a young woman (Joan Fontane) who marries ‘Maxim’ De Winter (Laurence Oliver) but upon living with him discovers that he is still troubled by his late ex-wife. Stellar performances mixed with the superb direction of Hitchcock succeed in keeping the viewer strongly invested in the direction of the narrative. The captivating story by Du Maurier, accompanied by Hitchcock’s mise en scène, makes this a standout classic; a deserving winner at the 1941 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.
Starring James Stewart, Hitchcock’s thriller follows two students who kill one of their peers in an attempt to pull off the perfect crime. Gartering a different presentation to the norm of Hitchcock films, the entirety is set in an apartment. Hitch attempted to create a singular shot feature, though this proved to be impossible due to film reels only holding twelve minutes of footage. To combat this, he implemented cuts which gave the illusion of one continuous shot. This provided another layer to Hitchcock’s mastery of directing, enabling him to get actors to hold such great performances for longer than they generally would. With many connotations to a stage play throughout the film, it could be thought that this was the inspiration for Iñárritu’s recent Academy Award winner Birdman (2014).
Depicting two strangers who meet on a train and devise a scheme to kill one of their loved ones, audiences were captivated by this Noir thriller as it was yet another Hitchcock take on murder and alibi. This provides a unique take on the suspense concocted in Hitchcock films; even in society today, what happens in Strangers on a Train could happen to anyone. Couple this with Hitch’s ever-present and brilliant diction, this film is a timeless piece. Impactful to audiences because of the relatability within the scenario, much like Psycho’s infamous shower scene, Strangers depicts unnatural acts in an ordinary environment. The film also stars a young Patricia Hitchcock, the only child of Alfred and Alma Reville.
Often seen as the quintessential Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder follows a typical suspense narrative in which a husband (Ray Milland) wants to murder his wife (Grace Kelly). This film goes beyond the usual Hitchcock formula; with every shot being meticulously crafted, all could be used for its publicity poster. With stellar performances, John Williams delivers an especially gracious role as Inspector Hubbard, ruthless in his pursuit of Milland’s character. Overall, Dial M appears to be the culmination of Hitchcock perfecting his interpretation of thrillers and suspense; it certainly pays off as the constant swerves in narrative allow its audience to never forget.
Hitchcock’s iconic thriller, James Stewart stars as L.B Jefferies, an injured housebound photographer who passes the time by spying on his neighbours; upon his snooping, he inadvertently stumbles upon a murder. With the aid of his lover Lisa (Grace Kelly), he attempts to expose the culprit. It’s a testament to Hitchcock that he is able to tackle so many ideologies from such a concise setting. Portraying many of Jefferies’ neighbours at different stages in their relationships, doubt is fed into him about becoming more intimate with Lisa, not wanting to turn out like those he watches. One element which aids to keep Rear Window timeless is the element of privacy, something that Jefferies’ neighbours don’t have because he sees everything. In context today, this could be translated as a commentary on social media and whether people lead truly private lives due to advances in technology. With a climax that is simply awe inspiring, every shot and sound is crafted to create a thoroughly tense piece of cinema, rivalling any other.
Having recently surpassed Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film of all time, Hitchcock’s technicolour thriller is not without fault but still spectacular. A tale of dangerous obsession is depicted when John Ferguson (James Stewart), an acrophobic, retired detective, is asked to investigate the peculiar activities of a former friend’s wife. From an appealing avant-garde opening sequence to a truly tragic conclusion, Vertigo has the ability to keep you engaged throughout by continually taking different direction. The film is very much split into three parts, all with different tones and feeling, identifiable by the female characters who take centre stage in John’s life at various points: Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton (Kim Novak). Containing many layers, it’s effectively impossible not to view the film on multiple occasions. Whilst the first watch allows you to focus on a somewhat complex narrative, despite Hitchcock’s painfully blatant methods of exposition, afterwards you’re able to appreciate character and the thematics of love, obsession, duplicity and manipulation, and how they’re demonstrated through performance and other audiovisual codes and conventions.
Setting the foundations for the modern day slasher movie, with some academics even going as far to say that John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is a remake of the silver screen classic, Psycho is as superior today as it was 55 years ago. An adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel, the film sees Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steal a significant amount of money from her employer. On the run in a bid to escape her current life, she makes an overnight stay at Bates Motel where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his ‘overbearing’ mother. In a very similar fashion to Vertigo, the film is broken down into three parts, identifiable by the characters we follow: Marion Crane, Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and finally Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). To have Hitchcock kill off his leading blonde midway through the film was a very brave and subsequently effective move, and the shower scene in which she meets her maker is thought to be one of the most iconic in Hollywood. As previously mentioned, the film set the foundations for the modern day slasher which is quite an achievement considering the minimalistic body count. With this, what’s most notable is the use of Norman Bates as a queer monster, something truly groundbreaking for its time considering the rare, and even then subtle or metaphorical, portrayals within horror after the loss of James Whale in 1957 (see Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932)). As the strict guidelines of the Hays Code were challenged by filmmakers before its eventual decline in the late sixties, the crossdressing antics of Norman Bates (inspired by the real-life Ed Gein) would go on to instigate other queer monsters over the course four decades, most notably in such films as William Castle’s Homicidal (1961), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, the main antagonist of which was also inspired by Ed Gein), Dressed to Kill (1980, Brian DePalma’s love letter to Hitchcock with an antagonist that has a strikingly similar appearance to Karen Black’s character in Family Plot (1976)), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991, an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel in which Ed Gein was the inspiration behind antagonist Buffalo Bill).
Though it’s often mentioned when discussing the works of Hitchcock, The Birds is often overlooked when focusing on the horror genre. More commonly associated with the offscreen relationship between Hitch and Tippi Hedren than the winged antagonists themselves, the film follows Melanie Daniels (Hedren) as she pursues Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a potential romantic suitor, to Bodega Bay in which the local birds seem to be acting peculiarly vicious. What begins as a sweet romantic comedy turns into a deeply unnerving horror using such simple techniques; just by victimising young children, using swarms as opposed to small flocks, and antagonising human prey with torturous pecks, scratches and flapping wings, your heart is in your throat as the tension turns close to unbearable. In addition to the influential methods used, The Birds helped create a more advanced profile for its cast, most notably a young Veronica Cartwright who would go on to help shape 1970s sci-fi horror cinema with roles in such iconic films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Alien (1979).
Taking Hitchcock back to Britain after a long string of Hollywood films, Frenzy is by far his most sinister motion picture. Certified by today’s standards as an R in the US and an 18 in the UK, the only film of Hitchcock’s to receive such adult certification, the film concerns Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) as he is wrongly accused of committing a series of brutal murders involving rape and strangulation. Despite speculation that Hitch had wanted to cast Michael Cane and Helen Mirren, Frenzy has a set of undeniably strong stars who deliver exceptional performances whilst adding an overwhelming Britishness to the film, making the film stereotypical but nevertheless a grand example of British cinema. Working on a very similar principle to Michael Powell’s career-killing Peeping Tom (1960), Hitchcock explores voyeurism with fearful reaction shots of his victims, all with the addition of visually depicting the violent acts that are happening against them: nudity in scenes of sexual violence and the killer’s necktie tightly wrapped around the necks of his victims in scenes of murder. Paying close attention to the cinematography and editing of these scenes, the techniques are almost identical to those used in Psycho’s shower scene.
Would you eliminate any of our entries to the list? Maybe you’d add one or two?
Comment with your thoughts.
– Christian Robson Rebecca, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder & Rear Window
– Daniel Sheppard Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds & Frenzy