I. Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo is probably the most “philosophical” of all Hitchcock films. Whatever angle you take (the detailed “stalking” scenes, the acting, the object symbolism, etc.), the beauty of Vertigo comes through, overwhelming the viewer. Set and shot on location in San Francisco, Vertigo is a story of obsession that focuses on Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart (Anatomy of Murder (1959)), a former detective suffering from acrophobia (an extreme fear of heights) who is tasked with following one woman by her husband – Madeleine (Kim Novak), because she might be a danger to herself. This film about mistaken identities, grief and seeking love at all costs is also a nuanced psychological thriller. I can’t say I enjoy the very slow pace of Vertigo, but it is an entrancing cinematic experience nevertheless and for a multitude of reasons deserves its number one spot.
II. Psycho (1960)
Psycho is my confident number two choice. This is a quintessential Hitchcock film with some unbelievable twists and deep psychology. Suspense is the word here. In this story, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals quite a lot of money from her employer’s client and hits the road. However, she needs to rest somewhere on her way to her “financial freedom” and chooses the Bates’ Motel. You need to watch the film to know what happens there. In my review, I talked about how “Hitchcock plays expertly with its audience’s imagination and formed beliefs” in this film, that was also ground-breaking in many ways upon its release. Psycho is a the film that stood the test of time.
III. The Birds (1963)
The Birds is a very special film, unique even. Inspired by a short story by Daphne du Maurier, it shows a quiet community of Bodega Bay, California that is disturbed by some strange behaviour of birds that grow increasingly hostile. Meanwhile, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a wealthy socialite, tries her chances with a handsome lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Always attentive to small details, Hitchcock not only manages to establish masterfully the atmosphere of eeriness and unease surrounding the behaviour of birds in his film, but also conveys the intricacies of a complex romantic triangle emerging and deep character portrayals that are also, arguably, rich in symbolism. The Birds is an unusual horror expertly presented, albeit with an under-thought ending.
IV. Rear Window (1954)
In Rear Window, James Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer who is convalescing in a wheelchair after an accident. He spends his time in his Manhattan apartment having nothing better to do but to watch the windows opposite. One day he thinks he noticed something very strange going on in his neighbour’s apartment and he immediately assumes the worst. Rear Window is such an absolute classic that all additional praises are futile. Ingenious, witty and masterfully-crafted (as well as starring gorgeous Grace Kelly (Dial M for Murder (1954)), Rear Window showcases Hitchcock’s talent to its fullest – paying attention to small details goes a long way and different camera angles and “what if” situations help create the most delicious suspense.
V. Strangers on a Train (1951)
Strangers on a Train is an impressive thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s book of the same name. In this story, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a tennis star, meets psychopathic man Bruno Atony (Robert Walker) on a train and the result is an unprecedented battle of wits as Bruno tries to persuade Guy “to exchange murders”, i.e. Bruno will kill Guy’s “unwanted” wife and, in turn, Guy will kill Bruno’s “detested” father. As so many other Hitchcock films, there are deep character studies here, atmospheric suspense and attention to nuances of all kinds. The theme of doubles and the final sequence on the merry-go-round, which is, really, the golden standard of editing, only make the film so much better. It is best to go into this film knowing as little as possible about the plot, and, if you do, Strangers on a Train is an exhilarating experience!
VI. Rope (1948)
Based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, this one-location film by Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates the extent of human psychopathy coupled with bravado and limitless arrogance. When two classmates kill their mate, they invite everyone to dinner and serve dishes from the chest where his body is placed. However, when their Professor (James Stewart) pays a visit to this party, he starts to suspect the worst. Alfred Hitchcock famously said: “There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two.” The film audience knows the killing took place, so there is no surprise, but the people in the story don’t have a clue and the suspense about how the crime will be discovered is immense. In Rope, Alfred Hitchcock proves yet again he can maintain the intrigue and the fascination using just one setting and limited props.
VII. Spellbound (1945)
I have a very soft spot for Spellbound because of its subject matter (psychoanalysis/dream-analysis), the amazing Ingrid Bergman and the finale. Adapted from the book The House of Dr Edwardes (1927), the film is about Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), a young psychiatrist at Green Manors, a mental health facility, who falls for a newcomer psychiatrist Dr Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). However, everything is not what it appears to be and soon identities are questioned and uncomfortable truths revealed. Dr Peterson has to dive deep into the recesses of one disturbed mind to uncover the guilty party behind one seemingly impossible-to-solve crime. Thrilling, twisty and creative, Spellbound may be let down by Gregory Peck’s “less-than-perfect” acting, but it is still a very entertaining film that also benefits from Miklós Rózsa’s wonderful score.
VIII. Rebecca (1940)
This is a film of Hitchcock where his creative control was evidently compromised by no other than producer David O. Selznick. Based on an acclaimed novel by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca is about one unnamed heroine (Joan Fontaine) whose dreams come true when she marries a dashing and rich Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) but only to find out that he is still pretty much obsessed with his late wife. Rebecca is an almost perfect adaptation of its source material, an atmospheric, suspenseful and romantic film that constantly questions the “truth”.
IX. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Based on a novel The Wheel Spins (1936) by Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes is Alfred Hitchcock’s fifteenth sound film that has an “outrageous” plot-line: an English tourist on a train suddenly discovers that her elderly travelling companion has mysteriously disappeared and is nowhere to be found. Magic? A spy trick? Or maybe even a hallucination? The young lady turns detective and starts to investigate the occurrence, especially since it appears that she alone has any knowledge of her companion even being on the train. Often unjustly overlooked Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes is not only a great entertainment, it is also a considerate piece of cinematography that may surprise you.
X. The Wrong Man (1956)
This is a film that is actually based on a real story. Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men (1957)) plays Manny Balestrero (real name), a man who might be wrongly accused of an armed robbery. A series of unlikely coincidences points to his guilt, but what is the truth? This film is as much about seeking justice as it is about the psychological impact of a wrongful conviction/accusation on an innocent person and his family. If you enjoy these kind of stories, I also recommend John Grisham’s non-fiction book The Innocent Man (2006).
I probably should say here that I have a confession to make: I am not a big fan of Cary Grant and do not normally enjoy the so-called “spy” thrillers. Therefore, such films as North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946) and 39 Steps (1935) sadly did not make the cut. I also have huge problems with Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which, in my personal opinion, is simply preposterous and without nuance and found Suspicion (1941) very dull. Now that the negatives are out of the way, what do you think about my list and ranking? What are your favourite Alfred Hitchcock films?