Happy Birthday Hitch! The Films of Alfred Hitchcock Ranked
Were he alive today, the Master of Suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, would be 116. With over 50 films to his name spanning from silent films to talkies, black and white to colored, and in first Britain and then later America, Hitchcock was a true auteur. So many of the modern thriller and horror contraptions we’ve come to expect were devised by this brilliant man. That frustrating mystery decoy, the MacGuffin, the hilarious—and rather meta—directorial cameo, and Hitch even discovered the appeal of the voyeuristic vantage point long before Bravo was shoving Real Housewives and Kardashians down our throats.
On his day of birth, we give thanks for a man who tapped into the very core of human nature, causing us to squeal, scream, gasp, jump, and “a-ha!” No one has raised hairs or provoked goosebumps as often or as well as the Master. And by way of thanks we’ve racked our brains and cast our votes to definitively rank the ten best films of Alfred Hitchcock. Whether you’re new to Hitch yourself or trying to decide how to introduce him best to your children, we say you start here. Just keep the lights on and prepare the edge of your seat, you’ll be sitting there a while.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest works is also one of his most spatially confined. The first in his oeuvre to be shot in color and most notable for its use of the one take illusion, Rope tells the story of two young intellectuals who strangle their friend to death and hide his body in a chest prior to hosting a dinner party in the very same room where the corpse lies. The act is deemed “an immaculate murder” by one of the men involved and the Master of Suspense stages the aftermath beautifully, setting the whole affair in one apartment unit. Every frame carries the tension of whether or not the conspirators will break and Arthur Laurents’ script playfully alludes to the increasingly apparent elephant in the room through dialogue that is both darkly comedic and slyly referential. The film is gripping in its “will they or won’t they be caught” premise, but Rope truly impresses with its nuanced navigation of homosexual subtext as well as the theme of theoretical principles being twisted into wicked, irreversible deeds. [Byron]
One of the few traditional horror movies in Hitchcock’s filmography, The Birds is the godfather of modern nature-run-amok films. Marred only by some now-dated special effects, the suspense sequences in The Birds hold up remarkably well, and the scene of the schoolchildren being attacked by the violent airborne creatures is especially unsettling. In the hands of anyone else, The Birds was bound to fail, but Hitchcock approached the subject matter with such seriousness that it manages to work almost in spite of itself. It may not be his best film, but it could very well be his most impressive. [Blair]
One of Hitchcock’s more twisted crime mysteries is in fact amazingly simplistic in its scope. A posh ex-tennis player, Tony, discovers his socialite wife, Margot, is having an affair with a writer, Mark, and plots to have her murdered. Using one of his signature techniques, the majority of the action takes place within Tony and Margot’s sitting room. Tony blackmails an old college acquaintance to do the murdering and in a hair-raising scene he sneaks into her house and attempts to strangle her. What none of them expect is that Margot has more fight in her than they imagined. As a filmed adaptation of a play, the stakes never feel all that high, but Hitch gets around this with his attention to detail. He lingers on objects and plays with our sentiments toward each character. It’s the perfect example of Hitchcock’s ability to carefully build a mystery and then piece by piece deconstruct it, and the process is a slow and simmering thrill to experience. [Ananda]
Notorious> is a film so pulsating with sexual tension, rich imagery, forbidden romance and drunken desire that it’s almost too much to handle; watch it in the right environment and you’re liable to burst. It’s one of Hitchcock’s finest works (his finest in my book), an international spy romance starring Ingrid Bergman in her greatest role alongside Casablanca. Matching her greatness is Cary Grant, a U.S. agent who recruits Bergman to infiltrate a spy ring in Rio de Janeiro and get intimate with its leader (Claude Rains). The love triangle that emerges is the best in movie history, full of innuendo and jealous glances, all framed by a plot so well constructed it rivals any of Hitchcock’s more popular classics (even Vertigo and Rear Window). Filmmaking doesn’t get more elegant than watching Grant and Bergman descend that grand staircase at the end of the film, and it doesn’t get steamier than watching them lock lips in what was, at the time, “the longest kiss in the history of movies.” [Bernard]
Perhaps Shadow Of A Doubt has become more famous for being Hitchcock’s personal favorite than for the sum of its parts, but that feels grossly unfair to what is, essentially, a masterpiece. When Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) announces a surprise visit to his family in the small town of Santa Rosa, his niece and namesake Charlotte “Charlie” (Teresa Wright) is ecstatic. However, it’s not long before she starts to suspect her uncle of being the “Merry Widow” serial killer, and the plot unravels in the kind of hair-raisingly suspenseful way that would later become synonymous with Alfred Hitchcock’s name. In a rare twist of classic Hollywood convention, the leading man in this picture ends up being one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains. Boasting the most opulent cinematography of any Hitchcock film (by Joseph Valentine), ridiculously immersive characterization of a small family unit, and a supremely original male-female dynamic that inspired Cotten’s and Wright’s mesmerizing performances; it’s easy to see why Hitchcock loved it so much. That slow-burning close-up of Cotten describing widows as “wheezing animals” is everything. [Nik]
Hitchcock’s paranoia-fueled tale of a man trapped in his apartment with delusions of murderous neighbors is my all-time favorite of his works. Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photographer Jeff is the vehicle through which Hitchcock traps his audience into forced suspense. Through Jeff’s camera lens, we watch his various neighbors, and through his journalistic inquisitiveness and voyeuristic nature we start to see the same suspicious signs he does. His, at first, hairbrained schemes of murder by his neighbor across the way (played with perfect intensity by Raymond Burr) become more and more plausible the longer he (and we) watch from the darkened window of his apartment. With the bustling sounds of New York City providing a sort of humming background, Jeff’s neighbors live out their lives through their windows like a puppet show for his amusement, but as the truth of the danger he puts himself in by prying becomes clearer, it is Jeff who becomes the puppet, confined to his one room stage, and the denouement of Rear Window is by far among the most uncomfortably riveting of Hitchcock’s career. [Ananda]
Hitchcock’s timeless tale of exchanging murders poses a question that we’ve all asked ourselves, and in the process truly shows off the director’s mastery. Hitchcock constantly found ways to make even his most villainous characters empathetic, and that’s precisely what makes Strangers on a Train such an immensely engaging film. Despite being an abhorrent, sociopathic murderer, Bruno Anthony is strangely charming. Robert Walker approaches the role brilliantly, opposite the criminally underrated Farley Granger, who plays a perfect patsy in the form of Guy Haines. Over sixty years and countless viewings later, Strangers on a Train remains one of the most suspenseful movies of all time. [Blair]
Mistaken identity was part of Hitchcock’s arsenal as early as 1935’s The 39 Steps, but it reached iconic heights (literally and figuratively) in 1959’s North By Northwest. New York ad-man Roger Thornhill (Master of Swag, Cary Grant) is mistaken for a government agent by villainous spy Philip Vandamm (a perfect James Mason), and finds himself running for his life cross-country whilst falling hard for Eva Marie Saint’s mysterious blonde beauty Eve Kendall. The film is infamous for its action scenes, especially a bamboozled Grant barely escaping from an evil crop-duster in the middle of nowhere, so it’s easy to overlook the sly sense of humor on constant display and one of the greatest screenplays Hitchcock ever directed (written by the legendary Ernest Lehman). Without a single frame wasted, and a kind of cinematic rhythm that holds the answer to defeating time itself, there’s no mistaking North by Northwest as one of the master’s very best. [Nik]
When we think about Psycho, we think of its iconic scenes. The infamous shower sequence. The shocking twist. That unsettling final inner monologue in which the audience stares directly into the face of evil. As undeniably memorable as those moments are, though, Psycho is notable for more than its permeation of popular culture. Beginning as a tale of a woman absconding with a bag of money, the film deftly transitions into a very different kind of story, centering on a young man, his mother, a motel and a trail of disappearances. With his intelligent use of editing (cleverly obscuring grotesqueries while still managing to disturb), a discerning eye for darkly connotative imagery and a perfectly paced progression of terror, Hitchcock took B-movie material and made it into art. A watershed moment in horror cinema and a catalyst for the modern slasher movie, Psycho legitimized the genre and remains a vastly influential work 55 years on. [Byron]
In the darkest corners of Hitchcock’s mind hid his deepest, wildest obsessions and fears; with Vertigo, he digs them out, slaps them together and forms with his hands the purest expression of his true self he’s ever shared with the world. It’s a pretty, prickly thing that sends you into a state of paranoid euphoria, lusting after its beauty as you drown in cold sweats. As we become more and more immersed in the headspace of Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie as he chases the spectre of the quintessential icy blonde (embodied by Kim Novak) around San Francisco, we are stepping into Hitch’s very own shoes. As in most of his stories, his leading man is his proxy, and the dizzying fever dream that is Scottie’s pursuit is his way of saying, “This is me. All of me.” It’s all there: his debilitating fear of the police; his manipulative relationship with women; his resentment of the real world and its cruelty. Hitchcock much preferred the world of dreams. In his greatest shot, Novak walks slowly toward Stewart in a lonely hotel room, wading through an otherworldly neon green light. The image is paralyzing. Hitchcock is known for being less than kind to his icy blondes, but in this moment, he feels her pain. Good filmmakers take you on a leisurely stroll through the garden of the mind; great filmmakers drag you through the brambles. By this measure, Hitch was the greatest. [Bernard]