Recently we’ve seen not one but two films about the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock: The Girl (which showed on HBO) and Hitchcock (which is in limited release now). But the master’s career spanned through silents into talkies and he made films for over half a century. Unarguably one of the greatest and most influential directors to pick up a camera, he’s a filmmaker who has made over ten truly great films. But besides the films that provided most of the basis for those movies, there’s even more great work from the man. Here’s our top ten that doesn’t include The Birds or Psycho – which could just as easily make the list.
10. Torn Curtain
By 1966, Hitchcock was falling out of favor, even if he was the most famous director in the world, so he cast (at the suggestion of Universal) two of the biggest stars in the world (Paul Newman, Julie Andrews) in a cold war thriller. Newman plays a professor who defects to East Berlin, where he wants to work with a certain scientist. Andrews plays his fiancee, who agrees to defect with him, not knowing he’s actually working for the government. Though Torn Curtain isn’t as strong as some of Hitchcock’s other films, the reason why it’s on the list is that it’s interesting to watching in light of Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds, as the character of Gromek seems a model for Hans Landa. On top of which there’s a number of great set pieces, even if the film loses a little steam toward the end. It’s well worth seeking out, though it and Frenzy are probably his last great films. Topaz is interesting, but feels a little off, while Family Plot comes across as made for television.
9. Foreign Correspondent
Before James Bond, Alfred Hitchcock was considered the master of the spy film and Foreign Correspondent is one of his best films that isn’t talked about as frequently as – say – Psycho. The film was made in 1940, so like many films of period it partly functions as propaganda, but Hitchcock never berates the audiences too much. Joel McCrea stars as a reporter who gets sent to report on the war and is about to talk to someone looking for peace, only for that person to be assassinated. Except the person assassinated ends up being a double, and the real person is being kept hostage. There’s a love story, and more, but what’s most interesting about the film is that Hitchcock often had a formula for this film, but this throws the most monkey wrenches into the mix. And the ending goes places you wouldn’t expect.
8. Strangers on a Train
Perhaps best known to some generations for it being referenced in Throw Mama From the Train (and then in the more recent Horrible Bosses), Strangers on a Train has one of the great plot devices in Hitchcock’s filmography. Farley Granger‘s character is a famous tennis player who has an wife who’s unfaithful but won’t divorce him, while Robert Walker‘s character hates his father. Walker suggests the way to get away with murder is to swap their murders so the motivations are unknown. Granger thinks it’s a funny idea, but doesn’t realize that Walker is a psychopath who goes through with his side of their bargain. Though Walker’s coding as a homosexual makes a modern viewing a little awkward, this is still top notch suspense from the master, and it features one of the greatest shots in cinema history. As Walker waits on Granger to fulfill his side of the bargain, he stalks him in a tennis match, and as all the other heads turn to follow the ball, Walker’s eye remain locked on Granger.
7. The 39 Steps
Hitchcock’s British period features a number of great or close to great films that didn’t make the cut (including The Lady Vanishes, the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and more), but The 39 Steps is his best British film, and it served as a great audition piece for working stateside, as he was scooped up to work for David O. Selznick shortly thereafter (and directed Best Picture winner Rebecca). The film is also the blueprint for so many of his films that followed. The 39 Steps is the macguffin of the movie, and Robert Donat is the character who’s dragged into the spy world when a chance encounter has him witness a murder. On the run from unknown enemies and with the steps as his only clue he bumbles his way into taking down an organization. Pauline Kael said the film worked so well that repertory houses would run it if they needed new carpeting. It’s just one of those pictures that is endlessly entertaining.
6. Shadow of a Doubt
Hitchcock’s personal favorite showed that the master was interested in more than just great plotting, he also understood character and setting. The film takes place in a small town where Charlie (Teresa Wright) is bored and pines for her uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) to come to their home, and when he does she thinks it’s because they’re linked. What the female Charlie doesn’t understand is that her Uncle is a murderer, who kills rich widows for their money. As she uncovers that truth it puts her in the way of her uncle, who loves her but isn’t above killing her. And though the “Hitchcock is a perv” sentiments that come out of these movies about the man distract from the fact that Hitchcock was incredible with female actresses and often made pictures from a female point of view. This coming of age film is all about a girl becoming a woman by seeing that there’s more to world than she thought.
5. North by Northwest
Speaking of endlessly watchable, from the moment Bernard Herrmann‘s score kicks in to the end scene this movie is just pure joy, and there are so many set pieces that delight every single time. Here you’ve got Cary Grant playing the wrong man hunted by James Mason and his team of baddies (headed up by Martin Landau), the ice princess blond in the form of Eva Marie Saint, and a plot that couldn’t happen in our internet age. There’s the crop duster, the fight on the presidents faces and so much more. This is the sort of film that if you can’t enjoy it, something must be wrong with you.
Another excellent woman’s picture from Hitch, Ingrid Bergman stars as a woman whose father collaborated with the Nazis and finds herself considered tainted by society. Cary Grant plays the American agent who sends her to romance an ex-Nazi living in South America (Claude Rains) who is still involved in some shady operations. A woman who puts her virtue on the line for the good of the country and possibly the love of her life who knows that she must have sex to maintain her cover, Notorious is just a top to bottom great movie.
3. Rear Window
When you get into the best of Hitchcock, there’s a sense of splitting hairs when it comes to his best film. After recently watching Rear Window, I may have said that it’s his best film, but that’s often the case after watching any of these movies. In a number of Hitchcock’s film he worked with similar tropes, with the most prominent being the wrong man and the other big one being limited locations. With Rear Window, he was doing something similar to what he did in Rope (which only has one “cut”) and Lifeboat (where everyone is stuck on a lifeboat), but Rear Window – which takes place mostly in Jimmy Stewart‘s character’s apartment – is the perfect iteration of this. One of the greatest films about voyeurism (which by nature, is about movie going). Stewart plays an adventurous photographer laid up with a broken leg. His girlfriend (Grace Kelly) wants to be married, but he thinks she wouldn’t like his lifestyle, which involves living in the jungle for days on end, while she’s a socialite. Things change when Stewart thinks he’s witnessed a murder across the way, and he tries to put the pieces together through constant surveillance. Though it’s lighter than the other two films left, it’s just as masterful and poignant.
Marnie is a divisive film in the Hitchcock canon as it was a flop on release, and many don’t care for its use of Freudian psychology. But Freud is often better used in movies than real life, and the film has many champions, including the late Robin Wood – who hailed it as Hitch’s masterpiece. It is the ultimate Hitchcock film, for better or ill. Tippi Hedren stars as Marnie, a woman who’s been stealing from different companies to provide for her mother. She’s spotted by Sean Connery‘s character, who knows she’s a thief but gets his company to hire her anyway, and though he can tell she’s a thief, he also sees that she’s got some mental illnesses, and repressed memories that have turned her into the woman she is. This is Hitch’s ultimate woman picture, and Hedren is as close to great as she ever got in this, and Connery walks a fine line in the film, and he plays it with a curious bravado that’s amused by his god-like dabblings in psychoanalysis. Though he’s stolen more directly from other movies, this is also one of the touchstones for Brian De Palma, and if you love Brian De Palma (and we do), this is a must see.
The Sight and Sound critic’s best film poll recently named Vertigo the greatest film of all time. Which is hard to argue against. Jimmy Stewart stars as a former cop who retires because of his vertigo, brought on by a traumatic incident where he was left hanging from a great height. He’s hired by an old friend to follow the man’s wife (Kim Novak), who he says is haunted by a dead woman. To spoil any more is unfair, but Hitchcock understood dramatic irony better than most filmmakers, and the reveal makes the last forty minutes one of the most powerful stories of loss and obsession put to film. Haunting, beautiful and tragic, Vertigo is simply one of the greatest films ever made. So why didn’t they make a film about making this movie? Oh well.
Did we leave off any of your favorite Hitchcock films?