The Best of Alfred Hitchcock
Like a marionette, Hitchcock's macabre vision dances its disjointed way into our hearts. Over 54 years he directed 54 films, starting in the silent era and crashing through to the collapse of the studio system. His earliest films played alongside Nosferatu and Dr. Mabuse. His last films were neighbor to Carrie and Taxi Driver. By the time Hitchcock passed, film had transformed from a novelty of light and shadow to the popular art of the twentieth century -- and Hitchcock himself was behind much of that change.
Some of Hitchcock's projects have changed the way that movies are made and seen. Others, like his TV anthology series, have blazed ground in new entertainment media. Others are just plain neato, and ahead of their time. For your perusal here are some the films that changed what movies are about.
The 39 Steps (1935)
This is Hitchcock's 22nd film, but it's probably the first that you can point at and identify as classic Hitchcock. It's either this or his 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Either way, though he began directing in 1922 it wasn't until the mid-1930s that Hitchcock really found his stride.
Regardless of its landmark status, The 39 Steps is indeed a classic. If you can find a good, well-restored edition -- such as the Criterion one -- the direction and structure feel about ten years ahead of their time. Here Hitchcock anticipates the cinematography and winding plots of film noir, all while establishing most of his recurring themes -- the man wrongly accused, the blonde who pulls him into trouble, the improbably convoluted murders, the strange cod Freudian psychology, the visual storytelling. Everything that you want in Hitchcock is here. Then he spent the next 40 years riffing on this foundation.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
One of Hitchcock's most famous early works -- and one of his last before moving to Hollywood -- The Lady Vanishes is a nexus of a few regular themes. On the surface it's an Agatha Cristie style whodunnit, with a surreal mystery and a large cast of unreliable characters, any combination of whom might be the culprit. As with The 39 Steps and many of his other pre-war films, it's also an espionage action flick, filled with the dangers of travelling abroad. Here also we see Hitchcock playing the psychological games that would later become his hallmark, with an extended and convoluted gaslighting plot that forces the story's lead forced to question her grasp on reality.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Shadow of a Doubt is a slow burner. The first time around, its charms might not be so obvious -- but in its subtlety this film is one of Hitchcock's masterpieces. It's one of the films you hear the least about, unless someone mentions that it was Hitchcock's personal favorite, but its sinister picture of mid-century middle America managed to grab it an Oscar nomination and some of the best reviews of his career. In an early echo of Hitchcock's strategy in Psycho, note the brilliance in casting the affable heroic lead Joseph Cotten, then in slowly eating away at the audience's confidence in his character. Note the complexity of the camera editing for a scene like the dinner table, with every weighted nuance of the conversation.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Though Hitchcock may be known more for thrillers and horror than for out-and-out noir, Strangers is about as black as noir gets and about as good. The premise is simple: two men meet, on a long train ride. One is a rising tennis star; the other, a disturbed son of money. Trapped as they are in a confined public space, the two strike up a conversation. The second fellow proposes a grotesque, if hypothetical, scenario. He hates his father; the first fellow is trapped in a broken marriage. Why not trade murders? Rattled and not a little confused, the first fellow politely brushes him off. The second fellow takes that as a go. And with the squeeze of a windpipe, our poor tennis star becomes a classic Hitchcock protagonist.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
As with Lifeboat, Rope, and Rear Window, Dial M is sort of a bottle movie, nearly all set in a single room of a London flat. The rationale here is simple; unusually for Hitchcock, this is an adaptation of a successful stage play. Pre-formed as it might be, Dial M allows for a curious twist on Hitchcock's now-standard protagonist, the "man wrongly accused". Here we have a murderer wrongly overlooked, whose careful and oh-so rational plot slowly crashes down around him. Without Tony Wendice would we have a Norman Bates? It's hard to say, but it's worth seeing the seeds as they take root.
Rear Window (1954)
Movies, properly made, are entirely subjective. As the viewer you're seeing the world from a specific narrow perspective, and making connections based on the imagery funneled down to you, according to the order in which you receive it. Early cinematography rarely took advantage of this property, and mostly involved aiming a camera at a room while people did things. Rear Window is Hitchcock's long-form study of that subjective theory. In parallel to the audience, Jimmy Stewart's entire world is on the other side of a camera lens; now that he's injured and can no longer move, he is stuck watching the people across the courtyard, passing the days until his cast comes off. No good can come of this.
Jimmy Stewart's fourth and maybe greatest collaboration is also Hitchcock's most personal picture. Vertigo is as much a paean to San Francisco as it is a deconstruction of Hitchcock's own manipulative tendencies and motives as a creator. Compared to, for instance, Rear Window it's a difficult watch; a slow movie, divided in two, with most of the drama in slow build-up and internal struggle. It's also one of the most rewarding, and filled with several of Hitchcock's most innovative techniques and iconic moments.
North By Northwest (1959)
Hitchcock's greatest crowd-pleaser is also his fourth and probably greatest collaboration with lead Carey Grant. Compared to the plodding and psychological Vertigo, North By Northwest is a movie of pure event. There's so much happening that there's no room for a plot; one thing just leads logically into the next, often with the most surreal effect. North By Northwest is both the logical extreme of Hitchcock's earlier "wrong man" stories like The 39 Steps and the template for the modern action movie. Nearly every scene is a cinema classic, whether Grant is dangling off of Jefferson's nose at Mount Rushmore or squabbling with his mother in a hotel elevator. Along with Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window, North By Northwest is one of Hitchcock's absolute must-sees.
Used to be, movies were made with the understanding that audiences would be wandering in and out of the theater and random intervals. If someone wandered in halfway through, expecting to catch the first half on the next loop, the story had to be understandable from the moment he or she sat down. Psycho changed all of that, and all of the assumptions that go into moviemaking, by requiring that audiences watched it from beginning to end.
It was a publicity stunt, involving a huge twist about halfway through the movie. The assumption was that if a movie has a big star in it, he or she is going to be in the whole movie; you went to see the star, and the movie itself was almost decoration. With Psycho, that assumption might not hold the usual amount of water. And Hitchcock milked the shock.
The Birds (1963)
How do you follow an interruptive masterpiece like Psycho? With difficulty. Although the Birds is not his strongest effort, it is one of his biggest. Which is to say, the effort shows. Yet even as he backpedals a bit into more traditional fimmaking, here Hitchcock also builds on and refines many of the innovations from his previous film. Where Psycho pioneered the use of a sparse, cutting soundtrack in a direct precursor to modern film scores, with The Birds he dropped the music entirely in favor of a continual patchwork of manipulated bird sounds. The Birds is also famous for its ambiguous ending, which suggests that for all the heroes' efforts, things might not get better any time soon...
If you want the short version, go for the "Big Four": Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho. Otherwise, any film here is the perfect place to start. One of the best things about a catalog as large and idiosyncratic as Hitchcock's is the way you can trace trends and see his art emerge from the unremarkable waves of his early work. It is curious that just as he mastered his art, and nailed the film that forever changed cinema, Hitchcock chose to slow down. After The Birds Hitchcock completed only five more films, over a span of 13 years -- none of them real classics, though both Frenzy and Family Plot are good fun (if that's what you want to call it!).