Saturday, September 5, 2009

One Fan's List of the Best Hitchcock Films

There are plenty of Alfred Hitchcock fans, so listing his “best” is a dangerous endeavor! But I’m ready and willing to accept all differing opinions. After all, the Classic Film & TV Cafe is all about our shared love of movies and television! So get ready to prepare your responses, because my choice for all-time best Hitchcock picture is:

1. Vertigo - This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. What we see at the bell tower is initially false, but ultimately true. I could go on and on…but, hey, whole books have been devoted to this film. I think it’s Hitch’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Hermann, and nifty Saul Bass titles.

2. Rear Window – My wife would rate this as No. 1, but she’s not blogging! As with Vertigo, there are multiple layers to Rear Window. Taken alone, there’s nothing interesting about the mystery of the missing salesman’s wife. The movie is really about the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Though she is rich, beautiful, and loves him (Stella describes her as “perfect”), Jeff refuses to commit to Lisa. He fears that doing so will cause him to sacrifice his exciting, globetrotting life as a magazine photographer. It is only when Lisa becomes his “legs” and joins in the investigation of the missing wife that Jeff realizes how bright and exciting she truly is. It’s part of the film’s offbeat humor, because, to the viewer, Grace Kelly makes Lisa looks stunning and exciting from the moment she walks into Jeff’s apartment. To provide contrast to Jeff and Lisa’s evolving relationship, Hitchcock lets us spy—with Jeff—on his neighbors in the apartment complex. Their stories are effective mini-dramas that are funny, sad, and murderous. Miss Lonelyhearts (that’s what Jeff calls her) dresses up and sets a table nightly for an imaginary date. Miss Torso practices dancing routines in her underwear, but rejects all suitors when she throws a party (later we learn why). The composer struggles to finish his compositions at the piano in his studio apartment. An older couple, with their little dog, sleep on the balcony because the nights are so warm. Technically, the film is one of Hitch’s finest achievements. Almost every shot is from the viewpoint of Jeff’s apartment, an amazing feat but also one that’s not distracting (unlike the ten-minute takes in Hitchcock’s Rope). Even the stagy sets work to the film’s advantage, for the apartment complex seems like its own artificial world.

3. Marnie – I devoted a whole blog to it, so I’ll let that write-up justify its ranking as third best. It’s definitely the most underrated Hitchcock.

4. The Birds – This one functions on two levels for me. It is, of course, a masterfully directed thriller about unexplained bird attacks in a small California seaside community (I love the playground and gas station sequences). But it’s also a well-acted 1960s relationship drama about three women and their interactions with the bland, but likable, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch’s mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) fea
rs losing her son to another woman—not because of jealousy, but because she can’t stand the thought of being abandoned. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother. These relationships are what the film is about—the birds are merely catalysts. That’s why the ending works for me; when the relationships are resolved, the bird attack end.

5. Strangers on a Train – One of cleverest (and most disturbing) premises of all Hitchcock films. The carousel climax is justly famously, but I favor the cigarette lighter in the drain. It’s a perfect example of how Hitch could generate suspense from a simple situation—with potentially disastrous consequences. I think Farley Granger and Robert Walker are pretty good in the leads, but not as strong as other Hitchcock stars.

6. Shadow of a Doubt – It took this one awhile to grow on me, but that makes sense in hindsight. Shadow of a Doubt is all about gradual realization. Charlie (Teresa Wright) slowly evolves from disbeliever (those accusations toward her beloved uncle could not be true!) to one who suspects the truth to believer to would-be victim. It’s a chilling tale, all the more so because it’s set against the backdrop of a friendly Thorton Wilder town.

7. Rebecca - It’s too bad that Selznick and Hitchcock didn’t get along better, because this collaboration is a n excellent, atmospheric adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. I love how the cheeriness of the opening scenes between the future Mrs. De Winter and Maxim contrast with the later scenes at Manderley. The cast is pitch perfect with Judith Anderson and George Sander standing out in supporting roles. Like many people, my favorite scene is when Mrs. Danvers suggests that maybe the second Mrs. De Winters should just end it all.

8. North by Northwest – I think of this as something of a lark for all involved, but that’s partially why it’s so
much fun. It’s my favorite of Hitch’s man-on-the-run films and James Mason, who plays the villain straight, is the perfect foil for Cary Grant. I only wish the Mount Rushmore scenes looked a little more realistic and Roger’s mother had more scenes.

9. Psycho – It’s hard to gauge the impact of Psycho now. But I can remember when I first it. I knew Janet Leigh was a major actress and so I was more than a little shocked to see what happened to her character of Marion Crane. (By the way, I was equally shocked when Arbogast was killed…filmed from that disorienting overhead camera angle). It’s really a fine film…more than a shocker…and also offer good performances, great Hermann music, and (once again) memorable Saul Bass title. And I guess that shower scene turned out to be a little influential.

10. Young and Innocent and Stage Fright (tie) – I am now officially in trouble with fans of Notorious, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Frenzy. Those are all fine films and I would list them in my top 20. But I must confess that I enjoy the two listed in my #10 spot more than those movies. The seldom-shown Young and Innocent is a fine early man-on-the-run film with sweet performances and its share of great scenes (e.g., carving meat at the dinner table, the great tracking shot leading to the killer’s twitching eye). As for Stage Fright, I’ll say upfront that the controversial flashback doesn’t bother me at all; I don’t understand the big fuss. Stage Fright makes this list on the basis of sheer fun and a delightful cast (the three stars, Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, and Michael Wilding at his most charming). I saw it late among Hitch’s films and I never fail to be entertained when I watch it again.

Honorable Mentions: Those mentioned in No. 10 that will get me in trouble for omitting…plus To Catch a Thief, Secret Agent, Blackmail, the underappreciated I Confess, and Sabotage (with the controversial bomb scene).

11 comments:

  1. Terrific list. I agree about the much talked about flashback sequence in STAGE FRIGHT. Not only did it not bother me, but I thought it was quite clever. I also really enjoy Hitch's films NOTORIOUS, FRENZY and SABOTEUR. You're not "in trouble" with me. It's your list. You can't please all the Hitchcock fans all the time!

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  2. Hitch first played with idea of doing a film with one set when he did Lifeboat. But concerning your list... Rear Window should be #1, and I'm writing this post

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  3. My wife agrees with you, Austin, and probably other family members, too. But, hey, I still stand by Vertigo!

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  4. Well, Rope is not on my list! It's an interesting film, especially with single set and the long ten-minute takes. But the cat-and-mouse game doesn't sustain itself for me. Perhaps, I'd like it better if other actors played the murderers. Have you seen Compulsion, which was also based on the Loeb-Leopold murders?

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  5. I like your list. Iam a huge HITCHCOCK fan. i have most of his films in my DVD collection. The only film i really dont care for is Marnie. after reading your review i may give it another chance.

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  6. Dawn, the first time I saw Marnie, it made no impact at all. But I eventually came to appreciate your virtues. Hope your next viewing is more rewarding, too.

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  7. As a huge Hitchkock fan, loving your list. As a classic film lover,(and know this statement may cause some controversy) your movie choices are mostly guy flicks. The 'Seven Samuarais' may be an influential film for Westerns movies makers (the Magnificent Seven, I get it) but most woman dont care. All real movie lovers enjoy subtitled movies but I really wonder if anyone besides male film students got through Seven Samurai...and c'mon, Point Break? Gunsmoke? Route 66? This is more of a 'Cool Guy' movie classic blogsite...

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  8. not to worry jerimoceri, with me around you will get your fair share of "chick flicks" ;-)

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  9. Watched VERTIGO (again!) last night on TCM and it just reconfirmed my (our?) opinion of its greatness and that it deserves the #1 slot. We've had this discussion before about MARNIE and THE BIRDS (IMHO: good, not great)...so I'm not going there but will encourage you to view NOTORIOUS again...it's definitely Top 5 Hitchcock...

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  10. Personally, I'd have NOTORIOUS at #1.

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